Somehow drinking and the use of drugs already fit into the image most individuals have about war veterans who have returned from duty. Yet, recent research continues to validate this image.
Researchers found that National Guard soldiers who have returned from duty were more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol if faced with life setbacks, such as job loss, legal issues, divorce, or financial concerns. The study was performed by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and it investigated the lives of 1,095 Ohio National Guard soldiers, who served in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2008 or in 2009.
Over the three years, the soldiers were interviewed three times about their alcohol use, exposure to traumatic events during their time of service, and the stress related to their every day life since returning from duty. Certainly, sober living for these men and women were difficult to sustain, especially for those who were exposed to more traumatic events during their time of service.
One of the lead investigators of the study explained “exposure to the traumatic event itself has an important effect on mental health in the short-term, but what defines long-term mental health problems is having to deal with a lot of daily life difficulties that arise in the aftermath — when soldiers come home.”
The traumas reported by the soldiers included combat-related trauma (experienced by 60% of the soldiers), civilian stressors (36%), and sexual harassment during deployment (17%). The research indicated that these experiences increased the chances of alcohol use. The study pointed to the contributing factors of alcohol use after a vet returns from war, such as the stresses of everyday life after duty as an American soldier.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently provided a list of guiding principles regarding the components of recovery that need to be addressed to achieve sober living. One of these was the pivotal requirement of addressing trauma. “Services and supports should be trauma-informed,” wrote Paolo del Vecchio, Acting Director of the Center of Mental Health Services, “to foster safety (physical and emotional) and trust, as well as promote choice, empowerment, and collaboration.”
It is frequently the case that trauma at one point in life precipitates drug and/or alcohol abuse. Trauma can also be the beginning of mental illness and other related health concerns. For this reason, part of recovery and achieving long-term sober living is to address trauma-related issues. In this study, the best treatment for those who developed an alcohol addiction as a result of their duty of service could be an exploration of their traumatic experiences.
An experience is considered traumatic when it threatens injury, death, or physical integrity, and is usually accompanied by terror and helplessness. A traumatic event could be the death of a friend or family member, sexual or physical abuse, an automobile accident, domestic violence, school violence, experiences of war, the effects of natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. For the soldiers in this study, trauma could easily be witnessing the deaths of other soldiers and/or the deaths of citizens. A service that might be useful for returning vets could include psychotherapy in order to address the difficult events that took place during war, which might otherwise drive an addiction. As pointed out earlier, when short-term psychological illness is not tended to, it can get worse and impair an individual’s ability to function. And this is when addiction can develop.
In order to facilitate and sustain sober living in soldiers, perhaps providing them with social services upon their return would significantly influence their psychological well being. And in return, they would have the resiliency they need to avoid alcohol and drug use when faced with life’s challenges.
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