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Veterans - Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Abuse

Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss

Published: 2012-10-09

Synopsis and Key Points:

Veterans from recent conflicts often experience symptoms related to combat stress and many misuse drugs alcohol or tobacco leading to health and well-being risks.

Main Digest

Veterans from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan often experience symptoms related to combat stress. In addition, some of America's veterans might also misuse drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; something that can lead to significant risks to their health and well-being. Abuse of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco has the potential to cause serious harm to a person's health, damage relationships, cause mood and behavioral issues, financial problems, and lead to various other issues for veterans who are attempting to reintegrate into civilian life.

Thankfully, issues with substance misuse can be treated or dealt with. Various supportive resources from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other organizations in America are available to veterans who served in the armed forces. Veterans who struggle with these issues do not have to face them alone.

A number of different studies of military personnel who have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan discovered strong connections between drug and alcohol use and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of psychological concerns that might happen after a traumatic event. Similar findings have been reported among veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Yet another study discovered a significantly increased risk related to the misuse of alcohol among National Guard and Reserve personnel who were deployed and reported exposure to combat when compared with veterans who were not deployed and were members of the National Guard and Reserve. To be plain, the misuse of drugs, alcohol, or other types of substances may be a common reaction to the experience of stressful events that are uncommon.

Veterans may use drugs, alcohol, or other substances in order to alleviate or escape memories that are uncomfortable or painful. They may use drugs, alcohol, or other substances in an attempt to self-medicate thoughts that are distressing, such as anger, guilt, isolation, or other emotions they feel that arise from having depression or PTSD. While a veteran is using drugs or drinking they may experience a reduction in the stress they feel, although it may lead to a number of serious issues.

Receiving Treatment for Substance or Alcohol Misuse

A number of people have a hard time reducing their misuse of drugs, alcohol, or other substances on their own. There are various types of treatments available to veterans through the VA that are effective. The treatments address all types of issues related to the use of substances, from the unhealthy use of drugs to the misuse of alcohol. The treatment options vary and include therapy, either individual or in groups, as well as types of medications to assist veterans with reducing their use of drugs, alcohol, or other substances.

To make sure veterans have the ability to attend VA treatment services, the programs are offered during evening as well as weekend hours. Residential or, 'live-in,' options are available for veterans who live at a distance from a VA clinic, or who have unstable housing. Specialty programs are also available for women, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans, as well as for veterans who are homeless. Some different ways to take a first step towards treatment and recovery include:

If you would like to seek treatment options outside of the Veterans Administration, you can use the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's website. The site's directory is search-able and presents the location of facilities around America that treat drug and alcohol abuse issues. You will find information concerning greater than 11,000 treatment options, to include programs related to cocaine, marijuana, and heroin addiction.

Smoking among Veterans

Studies have suggested that veterans not only currently smoke, but formerly smoked at higher rates than people in the general population. The same studies also suggested that smoking among veterans and people in the general population decreased as the people involved aged, yet even as they did age, the rate of smoking remained higher among veterans. At least two ways exist to measure cigarette smoking; current smokers and, 'ever,' smokers. Current smokers are those who currently smoke a certain number of cigarettes over a given period of time. 'Ever,' smokers are those who have smoked at some point during their life, although they might not currently smoke.

The substances most often used by people who are alcohol-dependent are tobacco products. Approximately eighty-percent of people who are alcohol dependent have reported smoking on a regular basis. While brain morphology, neuro-metabolism, as well as neuro-cognition are all known to be adversely affected by heavy and chronic alcohol use, very little research has been done regarding the independent effects of cigarette smoking or potential compounding effects on alcohol-induced damages to a person's brain.

What is known is that people who smoke tend to consume more alcohol than people who do not smoke. It is also known that chronic alcohol dependence can damage a person's brain, the person's frontal lobes in particular, which are critically involved in higher-order cognitive functions to include:

The question arises, 'Is all of the brain damage described in people with alcoholism in treatment caused by chronic and excessive alcohol consumption, or does chronic, comorbid smoking also contribute to some of the brain damage that has been observed' In other words, the combined effects of dependence on alcohol and chronic smoking associated with increased brain damage than either chronic consumption of alcohol or smoking alone. Studies have demonstrated that the exacerbation of alcohol-induced brain damage is most prominent in the frontal lobes of people who were studied early in treatment.

Cigarette smoking, independent of the consumption of alcohol, was also found to have negative effects on neuronal viability and cell membranes in a person's mid-brain and the cell membranes of their cerebellar vermis. In addition:

The regions of a person's brain affected by smoking and alcohol misuse are involved in both fine and gross motor functions, balance, and coordination. Higher smoking severity among recovering alcoholics was associated with lower N-acetylaspartate levels in lenticular nuclei and thalamus - areas also involved in a person's motor functioning. N-acetylaspartate is an amino acid derivative; its concentration is used as a measurement of neuronal viability.

Chronic cigarette smoking is also commonly seen in association with forms of neuropsychiatric conditions such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. The growing evidence that cigarette smoking has negative effects on a person's brain structure, brain metabolites, and function are very good reasons for veterans to consider quitting.

Quitting Smoking is Important to Your Health

Veterans as a population have also been found to have higher rates of smoking and nicotine use. One study has shown that approximately one-third of veterans currently smoke - a rate that is higher than the rate of civilians in the general population. Smoking is a serious issues because smokers die between 13 and 15 years earlier than those who do not. Despite the high rate of smoking among veterans, fortunately, a number of the veterans in the study were motivated to quit smoking.

Various resources are available to help veterans quit smoking and improve their health. A wonderful place to begin is the, 'Quitting Smoking,' page on the VA website. The Department of Defense program, 'Quit Tobacco, Make Everyone Proud,' provides veterans with resources and information to use for developing a personalized plan for quitting and has a private live help feature. You can also visit smokefree.gov for a step-by-step quitting guide that is free.

Do not hesitate to ask for help if you are having concerns about drug use, alcohol misuse, smoking, or psychological health. Substance misuse can be a common reaction to uncommon stress and can be treated and dealt with. Make use of the resources that are available to you and regain your best level of functioning.

Citations and References:

Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn Returning Veterans
www.butler.va.gov/freedom.asp

The VA Butler Healthcare provides priority healthcare and assistance to our Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn service members.

Quit Tobacco, Make Everyone Proud
www.ucanquit2.org/

Now Veterans enrolled in the VA Health Care System can use Quit Tobacco - Make Everyone Proud as a resource to help them with quitting tobacco use for good. Learn more about increasing your chances for success.

Summary of VA Treatment Programs for Substance Use Problems
www.mentalhealth.va.gov/res-vatreatmentprograms.asp

The VA provides effective, scientifically proven services for all eligible veterans, no matter where they come for services.

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