Veterans and Addiction
Addiction among veterans is a growing concern for the VA as well as their families and communities. Compared to the general population, military servicemembers face more risk factors for substance abuse. Unfortunately, individuals may develop an addiction during their military service or as a veteran in the years after their discharge. To improve the mental and overall health of its veterans, the VA has a range of resources to help veterans with a substance use disorder (SUD).
A vet may begin using alcohol, tobacco, prescription medication, or illicit drugs as a coping mechanism or other reason connected to their military service. For example, about 10 percent of vets treated by the VA after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan misuse alcohol or other drugs. Similarly, a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis doubles veterans’ risk of developing a nicotine addiction. Unemployment, homelessness, and criminal justice involvement may also put vets at risk of addiction.
Ultimately, addiction is responsible for a variety of long-term health complications. Heavy drinking, for instance, can negatively impact the body’s immune system, including how it fights cancer. Likewise, years of smoking can impair the function of the respiratory system and cause lung disease.
Veterans experience a number of unique factors that increase their risk for developing an addiction. Over time, abusing substances can result in poorer physical and mental health as well as worsen the side effects of other diseases.
The substances below affect vets’ wellbeing in several ways (such as the body’s ability to stop cancers from growing). Additionally, misuse of the following substances can impact an individual’s ability to undergo certain types of mesothelioma treatment.
Compared to other substances of abuse, alcohol is the most commonly misused substance leading to addiction among people who have served. Binge drinking and continuous heavy drinking are prevalent problems in the military and among veterans. Unlike safe alcohol consumption, and alcohol addiction involves over-drinking followed by negative consequences like legal penalties, neglecting responsibilities, and alcohol-related disorders.
Often, drinking is a part of military camaraderie or used as a coping mechanism for mental or psychological pain. Yet, alcohol addictions and heavy drinking have been linked to reducing the body’s ability to fight certain types of cancers and:
- Acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS)
- Anxiety and depression
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Memory problems and dementia
- Social problems
- Tissue recovery impairment
Additionally, mesothelioma treatments like chemotherapy depend on a healthy immune system. Because alcohol lowers the effectiveness of the immune system, drinking is often prohibited during mesothelioma treatment involving chemotherapy. Additionally, doctors may ask patients to refrain from drinking before radiation, surgery, and immunotherapy to increase the effectiveness and reduce recovery times from treatment.
Nicotine and Tobacco
In the military, tobacco and nicotine use is more common (and more common among veterans of foreign wars) than among civilians of the same age. Nicotine-containing products are highly addictive, and up to 90 percent of regular smokers have a nicotine addiction.
An addiction to the nicotine found in tobacco can result in withdrawal symptoms for vets who try to stop smoking. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Depressed mood or feeling sad
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling irritable or grumpy
- Increased hunger and weight gain
- Restlessness and feeling jumpy
- Slower heart rate
- Trouble concentrating
Using nicotine products and smoking tobacco for long periods of time can result in cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and a weakened immune system. Furthermore, smoking can result in respiratory disorders requiring medical management like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The damage caused by smoking also worsens the side effects of lung diseases (such as a cough and shortness of breath).
Though medicine is typically legally prescribed, the misuse of prescription drugs has increased significantly among Americans in recent decades. The abuse of prescription medication (such as opioid painkillers, antidepressant benzodiazepines, and stimulants) involves taking a prescription in a way that was not intended by the prescriber. Long-term misuse of benzodiazepines (like Valium® and Xanax®), prescription stimulants (like Ritalin®), and opioids (like Percocet®) can lead to brain damage and memory and thinking problems.
Among veterans, prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone are the most commonly abused medications because they are generally prescribed after surgery and for chronic pain. Mental health disorders like PTSD and depression also increase an individual’s risk of developing an opioid addiction.
Compared to the civilian population, veteran use of illicit drugs like heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines is about the same. Marijuana is the most commonly reported illicit drug used by veterans and may contribute to some respiratory issues. In one government study, a heroin addiction was reported in 10 percent of veteran admissions to SUD treatment centers followed by cocaine in six percent of cases.
The majority of heroin users initially had an addiction to prescription opioids. Over two-thirds of veterans report lasting pain, and many have been received painkillers to manage symptoms. Subsequently, numerous veterans turned to opioids like heroin when they could no longer obtain a prescription. As opioid prescriptions increased from 2001 to 2009, rates of synthetic opioid addiction and overdose rates likewise climbed in succeeding years.
Addiction and Mesothelioma Treatment
When treating mesotheliomas, good overall health can make recovering from treatment easier by reducing potential side effects. However, veterans with underlying conditions may have a greater risk of experiencing complications from treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. For instance, smoking tobacco and other drugs can reduce lung function and increase recovery time after removing parts of a lung. Heavy drinking, similarly, can reduce the ability of the immune system to withstand some chemotherapies.
In addition to treating SUDs, preventing addiction among patients undergoing mesothelioma treatment is vital. A cancer diagnosis can produce intense, negative emotions. In some cases, people may turn to abusing substances to cope. An addiction can interrupt the patient’s treatment schedule and ability to manage their medication as well as worsen their quality of life and mesothelioma prognosis.
Substance Abuse Resources for Veterans
Reducing the long-term impact of addictive substances on veterans’ health is a goal of the Veteran’s Health Administration. For veterans who qualify, the VA offers mental health and addiction treatment through its hospitals and clinics. Moreover, the MISSION Act, passed in October 2020, allows vets to visit healthcare providers closer to them.
VA health benefits can be used for:
- In- and out-patient rehab services
- Medication to treat addiction
- Transportation to appointments
For vets who need help to quit smoking, call 1-855-QUIT-VET (1-855-784-8838) or visit the Defense Department’s YouCanQuit2.