Serving in Silence: Breaking the Taboo of Military Addiction & Mental Health

The battle against addiction and mental health in the military service world is often hidden and overlooked, yet vital to address.

When we acknowledge the unique stressors and challenges that military personnel face, we can work to foster a supportive environment and ensure the well-being of those who dedicate their lives to safeguarding our nation.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 5.2 million veterans had a mental illness and substance use disorder (SUD) in 2020.

Here, we’ll shed light on the taboo, work to remove stigma and provide resources and support for those struggling and their families.

Military Service and Mental Health

Marked by discipline, sacrifice, and unwavering dedication, their commitment to serving our country is honorable. But it’s also extremely demanding and can take a toll on mental health.

Stressors unique to military service

The very nature of military life, with rigorous training, deployments, and exposure to traumatic events, presents a unique set of challenges that can profoundly affect the psychological well-being of service members.

Deployment-related stress

Heading overseas to serve the country can bring tricky feelings the average person isn’t used to. Imagine being in a new place, far away from home, and out of your everyday routine. This can make you feel nervous, worried, and sad about being so far from your family and friends.

Deployment stress brings a rollercoaster of emotions. Being in a new place with new people can be challenging, but no one is alone. Others understand what it feels like, and talking to them can make you feel less alone and better understood.

Combat Exposure and PTSD

Experiencing combat—being in the middle of a war or other dangerous situations—can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It feels like having those harsh feelings stay with you even when the challenging situations are over.

These high-stress situations make your brain react differently, even after you’re safe, which may lead to feeling anxious, bad dreams, sleeplessness, or avoiding situations that remind you of stressful situations.

Separation from family and support networks

The military lifestyle requires you to change your environment, shift demands frequently, and sometimes extended periods of separation.

Whether for basic training or a lengthy deployment, being away from family and friends can be an isolating experience weighing heavily on emotions. This separation and being in a high-stress environment can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Each one of us relies heavily on our support systems. We lean on them when things go wrong and share our accomplishments with them.

Having fellow service members embarking on the journey with you provides a crucial support system but may not replace the comfort of familiar faces.

Returning to civilian life after deployment

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 44 to 72 percent of military personnel experience high stress levels when returning to civilian life.

Veterans who reported having emotionally traumatic experiences or suffered an injury during their service were significantly more likely to report problems with re-entry. And those who knew someone killed or injured faced a more challenging re-entry.

Additionally, about half of veterans say the military prepared them very or somewhat for transitioning back to civilian life.

Veterans also struggle with finding adequate employment post-deployment, and this is more challenging for those who struggle with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or bipolar disorder.

The stigma surrounding mental health in the military

There’s an old-school belief that being strong means you can’t show signs of weakness. This stigma suggests that you are perceived as weak and don’t belong in the military if you talk about your mental health.

Some fear that admitting they need help may impact their careers. They worry that opening up about their problems may cause their peers to have a different view of them, employers may withhold specific jobs, or they may be held back from moving up in rank.

But when stigma stops open communication about mental health, it prevents people from getting the help they need.

Talking about your feelings and asking for help is entirely OK. Being mentally strong means recognizing when you need support.

The Intersection of Military Service and Addiction

Millions of people struggle with substance use disorders, and they’re a considerable issue among active military members and veterans.

According to the NSDUH, marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug by veterans in 2020, followed by psychotherapeutic drugs like prescription stimulants, tranquilizers, sedatives, and pain relievers.

We use alcohol to socialize and relieve stress, but for military members, both active and those with veteran status, high levels of alcohol use are common.

High-risk factors for addiction:

  • Combat-related injuries and pain management
  • Self-medication for trauma and stress
  • Accessibility to prescription drugs
  • Alcohol culture within the military

Alcohol and the military

Since alcohol is widely accepted in our society, it can be difficult to pinpoint when someone has a problem. Additionally, those struggling often suffer for much longer than necessary.

Alcohol use is common in the military for socializing, bonding, and as a form of fellowship. Excessive drinking impacts physical and mental health, and military members with PTSD have greater alcohol use.

Overcoming Barriers to Treatment

Although we know that people need help, there are still barriers to treatment that need consideration. It’s not as easy as “go get help” for some. Providers must be mindful of people’s needs and tailor treatment plans to the specific individual, not military members as a whole.

The goal should be to humanize the issue and address needs with empathy and understanding. By making treatment available to all, we can overcome the fear of vulnerability, and those struggling can demonstrate strength by seeking help and openly discussing their challenges.

Steps toward destigmatizing mental health support:

  • Promote mental health education and awareness
  • Gain leadership support to set an overall tone
  • Provide anonymous resources for confidential support
  • Highlight success stories of individuals who sought help
  • Ensure easy access to mental health professionals
  • Have open conversations about mental health
  • Incorporate mental health into training routines
  • Continued advocacy for mental health support

Support and Resources

Although feelings of isolation and loneliness may be expected, military members are not alone. There are various support programs and in-person and online resources.

A program called Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E), formerly VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment, or Chapter 31, can help veterans get back into the employment world in a way that works for them. Veterans will work with a counselor to develop a rehabilitation plan outlining services.

Possible services provided include:

  • Reemployment with previous employer
  • Career counseling
  • Job placement
  • Assistance in starting a business
  • Training or services to find work to suit your abilities and needs
  • Assistance with living services if you’re unable to work

Role of family, friends, and fellow service members

Family members, friends, and fellow service members have a crucial part to play in the well-being of their loved ones. It’s vital they know the signs of distress and offer help when possible.

Being there to listen can make a big difference. Encourage open conversations about mental health and substance abuse. Let them know you care and that they’re not alone.

Fellow service members go through similar experiences and understand what it’s like to struggle in similar situations. If you notice a friend not acting like themselves, be there for them. It’s OK not to have all the answers, but showing that you care and support them can do a lot of good.

Military members’ families struggle with mental health challenges too. Some common ways are:

  • A single parent who feels isolated and alone
  • A child worried about their parent’s safety while they serve
  • Family with a returning loved one battling mental health issues
  • Loved ones who have lost their family member in combat

If you are struggling, talk with your medical provider or call Recovery Unplugged today at 1 (855) 975-1757.

Available resources for military personnel and veterans

Veterans can find help through the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 988 and press 1 for help today. You do not need to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect with someone.

Other helplines, online communities, and counseling options exist for military personnel and veterans who need them.

inTrasition is a free program that offers coaching as assistance for active duty military and National Guard members, reservists, veterans, and retirees.

Military Mental Health at Recovery Unplugged

We are excited to be in-network with TRICARE, a healthcare program for active and retired service members and their families worldwide.

If you or someone you care about are active-duty military or a veteran of our Armed Forces, Recovery Unplugged is ready to help you overcome your mental health and addiction challenges.

Call us today at  1 (855) 975-1757. Our experienced professionals are available 24/7, every day of the year. You don’t have to struggle alone.

As a community, we collectively support our military members’ well-being and want to help. You can help, too—consider sharing this blog to spread awareness and help break the silence.


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