Men and women coming home after military service are facing a number of intense challenges in adapting back to life at home. Even as use of other drugs is decreasing, prescription drug abuse among veterans and military personnel is increasing dramatically, tripling in recent years according to a 2008 Health Study by the U.S. Department of Defense.
A 2014 report by the independent group Human Rights Watch goes into more detail, revealing that more then a million veterans enrolled in the VA (Veteran’s Administration) healthcare system are taking prescription opioids, with half using the drugs chronically. The HRW study further showed that the rate of veterans dying of pain killer overdoses is double that of the U.S. population as a whole. Although strong opioids may sometimes be necessary for someone with chronic pain to be able to function, the potential for abuse and addiction is very high, and many patients go beyond the recommended dosage, and end up causing a great deal of harm to their health.
The scope and cause of the problem
It goes without saying that soldiers put their bodies in a great deal of risk, perhaps more then any other profession. Thus, they frequently endure a great deal of pain that may last long after their service is complete. In war settings, doctors frequently prescribe high levels of narcotic painkillers as a way of dealing with the higher level of pain, but this has often created dependency, in which the body is unable to function without drugs it otherwise doesn’t really need.
Suicide and homelessness among veterans increase dramatically among those addicted, as people become desperate or hopeless while attempting to get enough drugs to function. Although the VA has made attempts to offer substance use disorder help, it suffers from a shortage of resources and staff that often make it difficult for veterans who need help to find it. According to Amy Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli, the VA urgently needs 130 more qualified counselors to handle all veterans struggling with substance abuse issues.
Yet, in spite of all these challenges, there are people working to create innovative solutions that help deal with veterans’ unique challenges in helping them deal with their addiction to dangerous prescription drugs. Drug use among veterans is often tied to trauma or other mental health issues related to the strain or tension that came from their service. New technology from smartphones and wearable sensors can be used to detect real-time responses to stress, alerting the wearer of increased vulnerability to relapse.
Drug treatments are available, and veterans can connect over the Internet to help each other realize that help is out there. One such resource with a huge potential for veteran support is the NAMI Peer-to-Peer program, that can connect veterans with other people who have undergone similar experiences, sharing their struggles and helping them realize they are not alone. While mental health issues and addiction are frequently stigmatized, and hidden from view, putting these issues out in the open allows people to seek out treatment.
While some veterans’ struggles may seem so big that families and loved ones may feel tempted to withdraw, care and a stable living environment is an essential part of recovery, so resources are also being devoted to educating others around the suffering veteran, so they can better understand how to give care.
In addition, there are beginning to be new approaches among VA and military healthcare providers. Opiates should not be a first response to injury, but rather one among many other options that can treat pain. Informing veterans about alternate, safer methods of dealing with chronic pain, like acupuncture and physical therapy have caused the rate of opiate use to decrease.