PTSD and Addiction in the Military

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. It's normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after this type of event. If symptoms last more than a few months, though, it may be PTSD. 

Members of the military and first responders encounter these kinds of traumatic events repeatedly and with high frequency as a function of their daily job requirements. The prevalence of PTSD in this cohort is accordingly high.

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of veterans with PTSD varies by conflict: About 11–20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan have PTSD in a given year. About 12 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans have PTSD, and it has been estimated that about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

The relationship between trauma exposure and substance use disorder (SUD) has been well established. “Substance use disorders (SUDs) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently cooccur and are associated with worse clinical outcomes than either disorder alone,” wrote Dolores Vojvoda and Ismene Petrakis in The Assessment and Treatment of Addiction (2019).

If doing their job resulted in PTSD, veterans and active members of the military may be living in a constant state of anxiety or experience symptoms of severe depression. 

“Individuals with co‐occurring PTSD and substance use may be using substances in an attempt to forget or block out trauma-related recollections...several substances including alcohol have been found to impair cognitive capacities such as memory and thus may serve as a viable means of suppression, wrote Walton, Raines, et al. in “The relationship between DSM‐5 PTSD symptom clusters and alcohol misuse among military veterans.” 

Unfortunately, trying to cope with PTSD by using illicit drugs and alcohol is likely to worsen mental health symptoms while making a SUD more likely. Drugs and alcohol may be able to cover up emotional pain and mental health conditions for a while but relying on addictive substances without medical supervision frequently causes additional health issues, as well as relationship and career problems. Once an addiction emerges, professional treatment may be required.  

The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place proudly helps our men and women in uniform who struggle with substance use disorders. Members of the US military who develop health problems can rely on a healthcare program known as TRICARE. Farley has a lot of experience working with the command structure and healthcare provisions of the US military. A significant percentage of Farley patients have TRICARE coverage. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use and could benefit from addiction treatment services, please contact The Farley Center at 757.280.1303 or fill out our admissions request form.



US Department of Veterans Affairs information on PTSD: 


Other stories in this series: 

Moral Injury and Addiction in the Military

Traumatic Brain Injury and Addiction in the Military