Substance abuse is a major risk factor for suicide among veterans. The abuse of alcohol and other substances increases the risk of suicide. And US military veterans are not only more likely to use alcohol or drugs than the population at large but more likely to use those substances to the point where such use causes problems (abuse). The drugs that increase the risk of suicide range from illicit drugs to prescription narcotics, to alcohol. Unfortunately, substance abuse and veteran suicide are closely related.
Illicit Drug Use Among Veterans
Abuse of illicit drugs is usually more of a problem with veterans than with those on active duty. This is partially because illicit drug use while on duty can lead to a dishonorable discharge or even criminal prosecution. As of 2020 marijuana use was reported by 12.8% of veterans, psychotherapeutic drugs by 3.9%, cocaine by 1.1%, methamphetamine by 0.5%, heroin by 0.3%, and inhalants by 0.2%. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, usage rates of opioids went up from 14% to 20% among veterans between 2010 and 2016.
Prescription Drug Addiction Among Veterans
Chronic pain is common among veterans. Two-thirds of veterans report frequent and regular pain. 9% report chronic severe pain. This is fifty percent higher than the general population. A sad fact of modern life in America is that many people are given narcotic pain killers for chronic pain and become addicted to these substances. A survey in 2019 revealed that more than half a million veterans admitted to misusing pain medicines. The addictive nature of these drugs is part of the problem but more important are the mental health and chronic physical health issues among veterans. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are problems in and of themselves but also act as gateway drugs for heroin.
Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans
The most common substance for abuse in active duty service members and veterans is alcohol. Two-thirds of veterans who go into a treatment program say that alcohol is the substance that they abuse. This is about twice the rate of reported alcohol abuse in the general population. While 50.8% of people report using alcohol in the previous month 56.6% of veterans do. While 6.5% of people report heavy alcohol use in the previous month 7.5% of veterans do. 9.9% of veterans from age 18 to 25 have an alcohol abuse disorder and 5% of veterans age 26 and older do as well. One in five veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder.
Mental Health Issues and Drug Abuse
In general, people use addicting drugs to enjoy themselves, to escape from reality, or both. A warning sign for possible suicide is when a middle-aged man gets divorced, feels depressed, and starts treating his depression with alcohol or other drugs. Social isolation is a known suicide risk factor. This applies to middle-aged divorcees and to recently discharged veterans who are having difficulties integrating back into civilian life. Add to this problem PTSD, depression, traumatic brain syndrome, or any of a whole host of service-related mental health issues. All too often the veteran finds that alcohol or other drugs provide temporary relief from their mental distress. Unfortunately, drugs like alcohol make depression worse over time. Thus, the self-prescribed treatment of drinking increases a veteran’s depression and increases the risk of suicide.
A group of drugs that are not addicting and have shown great promise in treating PTSD, depression, and substance abuse disorders are psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA. These medicines are used to make psychotherapy or coaching more effective and are likely to become standard treatment of severe depression and PTSD within the next year or two in the USA.