Too Many Veterans Trapped by Addiction

Too Many Veterans Trapped by Addiction

Each year on the last Monday of May, Americans pay tribute to those members of our United States Armed Forces who have died while serving their country. That special Monday - May 27 in 2019 - is Memorial Day, a time for remembering those who have perished who helped protect the freedoms that we hold so dear.

For all of us in the recovery industry, it's important to remind ourselves at this time that literally thousands of U.S. veterans are alive, but not truly living as well as they could. Countless veterans are trapped in the grips of addiction, and many of those who saw combat are also suffering from co-occurring disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves anew each year what we might do to help, what extra steps we could take to contribute to improving the desperate situation in which so many veterans find themselves.

Veterans at risk

It's been estimated that close to 20 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD are also struggling with substance use disorders - everything from alcohol to prescription drugs to street drugs. We've all also read about the alarming suicide rate among our veterans, which frequently is accompanied by evidence of substance use disorder (SUD).

However, studies show that because not all veterans seek help or treatment from the Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities, it's tough to pin down an accurate figure for the prevalence of SUD among all ex-military personnel.

One study, by the Medical University of South Carolina, revealed that among veterans seeking first-time care at the VA for anything, a whopping 11 percent of them met the criteria for a diagnosis of SUD. It also found that the most prevalent types of substance use problems among male and female veterans were heavy episodic drinking and cigarette smoking, ahead of various drug use disorders.

Another study, by the VA itself, found that on average military personnel are prescribed more prescription pain medications than the general population. Because of this, the VA says, veterans are more likely to abuse opioids. And several other studies have suggested that veterans are twice as likely to die from an opioid-related overdose.

VA sets the bar in Ohio

The VA does what it can, and although some reports claim it's not enough, in some regions it's setting the bar for treating SUDs.

For example, the Dayton, OH, region has been reporting widespread substance abuse and some colossal statistics of non-fatal and fatal overdoses. Today, one of the largest drug rehab facilities in the state is the federal Veterans Affairs Hospital, where it's been reported that great strides are being made in treatment and recovery services.

Late last year, the Dayton Daily News reported that it was looking for "solutions to how the region can shed its national reputation as ground zero for overdoses and recover from the addiction crisis." The newspaper says it "examined VA's programs to see if outside organizations can emulate its best practices."

There are more than 83,400 veterans from all branches of the military - roughly 10 percent of the total local population - living in the greater Dayton area. This is an enormous concentration of veterans from which the VA hospital draws patients.

The VA's 334-acre campus includes a hospital, outpatient clinics, medical offices, a nursing home, residential housing and the Dayton National Cemetery. The hospital has 99 residential beds, an outpatient clinic and various programs aimed at helping recovering addicts find housing and jobs.

However, the VA "isn't immune to the opioid epidemic raging outside its fence line," the Daily News said. "In 2017, VA campus police conducted 67 drug-related investigations, up from 28 the year before. Twelve people overdosed on the VA grounds last year, including two deaths. Campus police carry the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, also known as Narcan, like many local police and fire departments."

Others strive to duplicate

In spite of this, the hospital told the Daily News that it has developed "the kind of comprehensive addiction treatment program other agencies serving the general population strive to duplicate."

In 2018, the Dayton VA identified 1,236 patients with opioid use disorder. The system allows many different services under one benefit plan, including prescriptions, medical care, addiction treatment, counseling, and programs for homeless and jobless vets. The Daily News found that the VA's programs were useful as a model, but were not entirely applicable to other non-VA facilities because of limitations as to what Medicaid covers.

However, for patients like Marine Corps veteran Mason Brubaker, the VA's inpatient alcohol rehab program was life-saving. "It's really, really changed me," Brubaker said. "I'm not typically one that will spill my life story to anybody. But the way that they can communicate and talk to you and make you feel comfortable, it's unbelievable."
For those of us in the recovery industry, let us work to find more ways to support these veterans and assist them to get out of the trap of alcohol and drug abuse. They deserve our help.

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