Defining Veteran Substance Use

Alcohol and drug misuse can lead to serious health, relationship, employment, and legal problems.  Problematic alcohol or drug use can also lead to dependence. Symptoms of dependence include tolerance, which is the ability to drink or use greater quantities over time, compulsive behavior, which is the inability to stop drinking or using in spite of negative life consequences, and withdrawal, which includes feeling sick and distressed when attempting to quit drinking or using drugs.  Problems with drinking or drug use may occur in response to stress, or in combination with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) disorder, depression, or other medical conditions. Fortunately there are proven methods to help veterans recover from alcohol or drug misuse and dependence, including mutual help groups and effective treatment.

Many veterans have problems with use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. This can include use of street drugs as well as using prescription medications in ways they weren’t prescribed. Such substance use can harm health, cause mood and behavior problems, hurt social relationships, and cause financial problems.  Many people find it difficult to cut down or stop using substances on their own. Effective treatments for substance use problems are available at VA. Available treatments address all types of problems related to substance use, from unhealthy use of alcohol to life-threatening addictions.

The VA provides effective, scientifically proven services for all eligible veterans, no matter where they come for services. VA providers know that in many cases, substance use problems are continuing conditions that require care over a long period of time. For other veterans, the substance use problems may be resolved more quickly with attention paid to related problems. Such related problems could be PTSD, depression, pain, disturbed sleep, irritability, and/or relationship problems.

The VA offers a number of options for those seeking treatment for substance use problems. These options include therapy, either alone with the therapist or in a group, as well as medications to help veterans reduce their use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

Treatments that do not involve medications involve one or more of the following:

·        Increasing and making clearer the veteran’s motivation for change
·        Helping veterans to improve their skills for spotting and dealing with triggers and relapse risks
·        Counseling couples together on how to recover from substance abuse and how to improve relationships
·        Getting outside support for recovery, including programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
·        Looking at how substance use problems may relate to other problems such as PTSD and depression.
VA providers may use medications to treat alcohol dependence. Effective medications can help manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce craving, and promote abstinence, which is not drinking any alcohol.

Several medications for stopping tobacco can be effective alone or in combination:

·        A nicotine replacement skin patch, gum or lozenge
·        The medication bupropion, that has also been effective with depression
·        The newest choice, varenicline, that has a very different way of working than the other medicines.

There are three different medications to treat addiction to opioid drugs like heroin, oxycodone or other pain killers. Methadone is an effective approach for chronic opioid addiction that can be provided only within a special program. Buprenorphine / naloxone and naltrexone can be part of treatment plans in a variety of clinical settings.

To help make sure that veterans can attend VA treatment services, programs offer evening and weekend hours. Residential (live-in) options are available for veterans who live far away from a VA clinic or have unstable housing. Special programs are often offered for patients with special concerns, such as women, OEF/OIF veterans, and homeless patients.

You may be wondering if you have symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse or dependence. One way of determining that is to take a brief, confidential and anonymous screen.  Only you will see the results of the brief screen. None of the results are stored or sent anywhere. You can choose to print a copy of the results for your own records or to give to your physician or mental health professional.

The VA has many resources to help veterans and their loved ones answer questions, find support, get treatment, and recover.  Head over to the nearest VA Health Center or visit the VA website to learn more about how veterans can be helped on the road to recovery.

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