Alcoholism in Veterans: Causes and Effects

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Last Updated - 09/01/2023

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Updated 09/01/2023

Alcoholism in veterans and active service members is a major health concern affecting numerous personnel and their families. Alcohol use disorder is the most prevalent type of substance use disorder impacting service members during deployment and after discharge. Understanding the full context of alcohol use and stress in the military can help service providers and families better support their military personnel.

Alcohol Abuse and Military Culture

The 2018 Health Related Behaviors Survey reported 34% of marine, 29% of navy, 27.3% of air force and 26.8% of army service members surveyed viewed the military culture as supportive of drinking. This may be a result of several factors, including:

  • High levels of stress and trauma
  • Lack of confidentiality when seeking support from superiors
  • Stigma surrounding mental health concerns and treatment
  • The use of alcohol as a way to connect with other service members
  • Strict drug policies and testing which discourage illicit drug use
  • Ideas surrounding strength and mental toughness

Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Veterans

Active military personnel and veterans face an increased risk of developing an alcohol addiction. Risk factors include deployment, combat exposure, civilian reintegration challenges, trauma and health conditions. There are also service members with an even higher risk due to the high levels of stress and violence they’re exposed to, depending on their deployment and position.

PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition resulting from trauma that impacts 7% of veterans at some point in their life. Female veterans specifically have a higher rate of PTSD at 13%. Those exposed to more combat, kill others while engaged in conflict or are sexually assaulted or harassed while serving have an increased risk of developing PTSD. Many individuals facing PTSD will turn to substances to cope. Nearly one in three veterans seeking treatment for SUD also has PTSD.

Alcohol is often used to cope with symptoms of PTSD, such as avoiding painful memories or feelings and numbing or dealing with anxiety and sleep issues. Unfortunately, alcohol worsens symptoms of PTSD, and ongoing or heavy use can lead to a substance use disorder.

Depression

Alcohol use and depression co-occur for many service members. In general, individuals with depression and other mental health conditions are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. Alcohol is often used to cope but only exacerbates symptoms.

Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Any sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service is considered military sexual trauma (MST). This includes any unwanted sexual advances, comments on your body, being pressured or coerced to engage in sexual activities by use of threats or promises of better treatment, rape and any sexual activity when you are unable to give consent.

Just as in the civilian population, there is a lot of stigma surrounding sexual assault and harassment. Survivors of this type of violence may not come forward or seek treatment for fear of retaliation, negative treatment by peers and superiors, or because of how their career may be impacted. Individuals may use alcohol to cope with the effects of the trauma. While it may provide a temporary escape, it puts the service member at an even greater risk of developing a SUD.

Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

Our facilities have helped thousands of veterans overcome a drug or alcohol addiction. At The Recovery Village Palmer Lake, our treatment programs offer veterans:

  • Veteran Advocates who can navigate the VA on your behalf to enter treatment faster
  • Dual diagnosis to treat addiction and mental health disorders together  
  • EMDR, a revolutionary treatment that alleviates trauma symptoms

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Impact of Alcohol Addiction on Veterans

Alcoholism in veterans can significantly harm their well-being. In terms of physical health, alcohol addiction increases one’s risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, liver disease, a weakened immune system and a stroke. It also strains relationships and negatively impacts functioning, mental health and job performance.

Homelessness

While not all veterans use substances or have an addiction, accessible substance use treatment is an important component of addressing housing instability for veterans. One study surveying 5,766 veterans with a history of homelessness found that 7.4% of participants had an overdose in the last three years. Researchers also reported that alcohol was the substance most commonly involved in the overdose.

Self-Harm and Suicide

Death by suicide continues to be a large concern for veterans, their families and those who support them. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for veterans ages 18 to 44. For many veterans struggling with suicidal ideation, alcoholism further exacerbates negative symptoms and distress. 19.6% of veterans who died by suicide in 2020 had an alcohol use disorder.

Strained Relationships

Alcoholism can change a person’s mood and behavior. It may worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD and lead a person to isolate. When a person is dealing with an alcohol addiction, they’re more likely to continue drinking despite harm to themselves or those around them. Alcohol use also intersects with domestic violence and child abuse. These types of abuse occur because the abuser behaves violently to gain and maintain power and control over another person. So while alcoholism is never the cause of someone abusing their partner or child, it can certainly exacerbate the violence.

Military Veteran Alcoholism Statistics

  • Two out of ten veterans with PTSD also have SUD.
  • The 2018 Health Related Behaviors Survey reported that over one-third of service members surveyed had engaged in binge drinking in the past 30 days.
  • Excessive drinking by military service members leads to an estimated annual loss of 320,000 work days and 34,400 arrests.
  • Excessive alcohol use within the military results in an estimated $425 million in medical costs annually.

Help for Military Veterans Struggling With Alcoholism

If you or a loved one are searching for expert care for veterans struggling with alcohol addiction, we’re here to help. As part of the VA Community Care Network, we provide specialized support for veterans and work with your VA benefits. Our team of experts provides all levels of care, including inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and outpatient services, as well as EMDR and art/music activities. Come enjoy our beautiful mountain views while you heal with support specifically tailored to veterans. Reach out to a Recovery Advocate today, and they’ll guide you through the process.

FAQs on Alcohol Addiction Amongst Veterans

Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability?

The VA may accept disability claims for alcohol use disorder as a secondary service-connected condition. This means the AUD is related to a condition such as PTSD that developed due to service. The VA may also accept disability claims on a secondary basis if the AUD causes physical health issues that impair the veteran’s ability to work such as cirrhosis of the liver.

What are the most common causes of alcoholism for veterans?

Alcoholism in veterans may develop due to a combination of genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors. A family history of alcoholism, previous trauma and drinking at an early age can increase the risk of an alcohol addiction. Veterans may use alcohol to cope with the stress and trauma they experienced during active service, as well as the stressors that accompany returning to civilian life or co-occurring mental health conditions.

What are some signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in veterans?

Signs of a potential alcohol addiction include:

  • Regular hangovers
  • Memory loss or blackouts
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences
  • Binge drinking
  • Feeling agitated when not drinking
  • Increase in risk taking behaviors when drinking
  • Forgoing activities in order to drink
  • Drinking alone or spending a lot of time drinking
  • A desire to reduce or quit drinking but not being able to
  • Decreased work performance
  • Increased tolerance to alcohol
  • Strained relationships

How does alcoholism impact veterans?

Alcoholism can negatively affect every area of a veteran’s life, including daily functioning, mental and physical health, relationships and job performance. It can also worsen mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.

What barriers to treatment for alcohol addiction do veterans deal with?

Barriers to substance use treatment include stigma within the military and civilian population regarding mental health and addiction, as well as difficulties navigating veterans benefits. Individuals may be afraid that seeking help is a sign of weakness or will negatively impact their position in the military.

View Sources

Cleveland Clinic. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” June 2, 2021. Accessed June 16, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” September 14, 2021. Accessed June 16, 2023.

Schumm, J. A. & Chard, K. M. “Alcohol and stress in the military.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2012. Accessed June 16, 2023.

‌Teeters, J. B., et al. “Substance Use Disorders in Military Vete[…]Treatment Challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2023.

Riggs, K. R., et al. “Prevalence of and Risk Factors Associate[…]rienced Homelessness.” JAMA Network Open, 2020. Accessed June 16, 2023.

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