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How Substance Abuse Effects Veterans and Their Families

Last Updated: October 14, 2019
Military life creates unique challenges for both veterans and their families. When deployment separates a family, those remaining must adapt to a new way of life. Although a military member’s return home is cause for celebration, reunifying the family unit and adjusting to a new set of circumstances is often difficult for everyone involved.  Many military members struggle to leave the trauma of active duty behind. They may suffer from a variety of issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health problems, and substance abuse. Unfortunately, the effects of substance abuse on families of veterans only serve to compound the challenges they face. 

Personality Changes 

When veterans turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their emotions, they often display a drastic change in personality. This is particularly true if the individual has suffered a traumatic brain injury, has PTSD, or is dealing with physical pain from an injury. Family members may take these changes personally and begin to feel depressed.  When you recognize a personality change in your loved one, seek to understand why the change is occurring and how you can help

Inability to Connect

Veterans with PTSD often feel emotionally distant. They may have trouble reconnecting with their spouse or partner on a romantic level. While one partner might disconnect emotionally, putting up a wall and hiding behind substance abuse, the other partner begins to feel rejected. If you are experiencing this with your loved one, seeking council may be a good first step towards change. Effect of substance abuse on military families

Coping Mechanisms

While a veteran may be the one who originally had a substance abuse problem, it has a tendency to spread. Other family members often adopt this unhealthy habit to help them cope with their raw emotions.  Adolescents and teenagers may begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs. At the same time, spouses may also begin spending their time drinking or doing drugs with friends as an alternative to facing an unhappy or abusive spouse. Other times, children or spouses will join the veteran in their alcohol or drug use in an attempt to regain some type of family connection. 

Financial Trouble

Traumatized veterans who also have a substance abuse problem may find that they’re unable to hold down steady work. This obviously causes frustration. The resulting financial instability may also lead to anxiety and depression in both the veteran and other family members. 

Family Hardships

When all of the previously mentioned factors combine, the result is sometimes catastrophic. A veteran with untreated substance abuse issues may become self-destructive or violent. They may begin to contemplate suicide or engage in behaviors like domestic violence and child abuse Family members can help their loved ones by attempting to intervene before things get this bad. Seeking out substance abuse treatment programs or individual and family counseling can help everyone adopt healthy coping mechanisms and successfully adapt to their new lives. 

Research Sources: 

  1. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/populations-at-risk/military-and-veteran-families
  2. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/substance-abuse/resources.asp
Last Updated on October 14, 2019
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About the reviewer
Priscilla Henson, MD
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Dr. Priscilla Henson is a Resident Physician specializing in Emergency Medicine at a community hospital in central California. She also serves as a member of the Pain Management Quality Improvement Committee through the same hospital. Part of the committee’s mandate is to work toward non-narcotic pain management alternatives.

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