Trauma and Addiction: What Military Families Need to Know

military family

By Michael Rass

Trauma and addiction are closely linked. According to the self-medication hypothesis of addiction, people frequently develop substance use disorders while attempting to manage distress associated with the effects of trauma. This theory suggests that people turn to alcohol and drugs to manage the intense flood of emotions and flashbacks associated with traumatic stress to numb themselves from the experience of these intense emotions.

One trauma-related disorder that affects many men and women in uniform is posttraumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.

The PTSD diagnosis emerged from conditions affecting primarily war veterans. In the past, it was known as “shell shock” during and after World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II. But PTSD does not happen just to combat veterans. A majority of American adults experience some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. It has been estimated that 7–8 percent of the overall population will have PTSD at some point in their lives.

This percentage is much higher, however, for people serving their nation in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. According to the Veterans Administration (VA), about 15 percent “were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (or 30 percent) of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.”

More recent conflicts yield similarly high rates. The VA reports that between 11 and 20 percent who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. In a 2008 study by RAND, 18.5 percent of returning veterans reported symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder or depression.

Many studies show a strong relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders (SUDs) in both civilian and military populations. According to the VA, “more than 2 of 10 veterans with PTSD also have SUD,” and about a third of veterans seeking treatment for an SUD also have PTSD.


Symptoms to Look Out For

Family members of combat veterans should be aware of the nexus between trauma and substance abuse. Untreated PTSD can lead to attempts to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Symptoms of PTSD include negative changes in beliefs and feelings, frequent nightmares, reliving traumatic events, lack of trust, avoiding situations or people that trigger traumatic memories, often feeling keyed up (hyperarousal), and having trouble sleeping.

PTSD symptoms can put a heavy strain on relationships. It is often hard for loved ones not to take personally the behavior symptomatic of PTSD. You may find it hard to understand your loved one’s volatile and negative affect.

It is important to seek help before the condition escalates to include substance abuse as well. It is not always easy to recognize early indications of an emerging substance use disorder in a family member. Your loved one is unlikely to admit to a problem. Once a severe substance use disorder develops, the addicted person will spend a lot of time obtaining drugs or alcohol and engage in recurrent use of substances in physically hazardous situations.

If your loved one has been diagnosed with PTSD and you detect substance abuse, an addiction requiring treatment may have developed. Members of the US military who develop behavioral health issues can rely on a healthcare program known as TRICARE.


Farley Knows How to Work with Tricare Patients

Last year, more than 20 percent of patients at  The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place had TRICARE coverage. Farley has general medical and psychiatric capabilities that enable the center to address trauma and SUDs comprehensively. Addiction, chronic pain and other medical conditions, depression, and anxiety all require specialized assessment and treatment to improve the chances of a successful recovery from addiction.

If you think your loved one requires addiction treatment, don’t wait until it’s too late. Give The Farley Center a call.  Farley offers an active duty pathway and there is a pathway for retirees and for dependents of both active duty members and retirees. The Farley team knows TRICARE really well and can help clients with any question they might have.