It's no secret that war and military service take a significant toll on veterans around the world. Canadian veterans are, of course, included in this group. From post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to severe depression and other psychological conditions, many soldiers have difficulty coping with the harsh realities they see and experience as a result of exposure to combat. Due to the harsh conditions in which they operate, many veterans end up with addiction problems after developing an addiction to substances prescribed to them to combat the problems they face - during or after war - or self-medicating with illicit drugs such as opioids or alcohol as a way of coping. some of the same problems. Addiction problems can also occur as a result of prescription drugs to relieve discomfort from injuries, chronic pain, or other physical ailments.
PTSD, once called "shell shock" and "battle fatigue," is common in military veterans. Symptoms of this often debilitating disorder include insomnia, memory difficulties, flashbacks, abnormal aggression and low self-worth. In most cases, prescription drugs are offered for injuries sustained or as a solution for PTSD. This likely contributes to the fact that more than 20 percent of military veterans in the United States who report cases of PTSD also suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. Common prescription medications prescribed after a PTSD diagnosis include pain relievers, benzodiazepines, and sedatives. Because use of these drugs regularly causes users to develop a tolerance, and because PTSD can last for years without any relief from symptoms, veterans often increase their dosages and become increasingly dependent on the substance, which can lead to serious addiction problems.
Substance dependence disorder (SUD), or "substance use disorder," is a classification given to any misuse or abuse of a particular substance by an individual. SUD is a term often used in relation to current and former military personnel who develop addiction problems. Many veterans develop SUD when they return home from war zones and military operations, as navigating the ups and downs of reintegrating into society can be complicated and difficult to handle. Generally, veterans move from experiencing intense joy to reflecting on what has been lost, and it can often be difficult to move on from the latter. They may also develop SUD while deployed, as a result of being away from spouses, family members, and other loved ones.
Veterans who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction often feel forgotten by society, as if their duty and service have simply gone down the drain. This may be in part due to the fact that it can be difficult for the general population to understand what veterans go through when they return home. If veterans have survived war and are having difficulty reintegrating into their families, lives, and everyday society, and if they are showing signs that they have or may turn to excessive use of drugs or alcohol as a way of coping, contact with an addiction specialist or health professional is recommended. . In order for the civilian population to better understand what veterans go through and why some become addicted to painkillers or even amphetamines, it is helpful to study some real-world examples.
Veterans and Addictions: An Example
Veterans can receive medication while on active duty, not until after they return home. Furthermore, they may not even be sure of the ingredients or chemical composition of what they are taking. Tyson Manker, a former Marine, reported after his military career that he and his platoon were given daily amphetamines and other unknown pills, which he later realized were hallucinogenic and potentially suicidal. However, at that time he and his platoon did what he said any good Marine would do: They followed orders and took the substances. Now a law professor, after his active duty ended, Manker was able to look at his files to better understand what happened.
Manker was given amphetamines, which are highly addictive while serving. Amphetamines are central nervous system stimulants, and the reason he got them while serving was probably to keep him sharp and able to keep his wits about the enemy. However, a practice such as the highly questionable one practiced by his superiors in giving him amphetamines on a daily basis certainly contributes to addiction in military veterans.
As we've noted before, many veterans also use drugs to cope with their return to civilian life. An example is the story of Anthony Mena, an elderly airman who died in 2011 with eight prescription drugs in his bloodstream. According to the toxicologist, the death was not suicide, but the result of the interaction of all the drugs at once. He received many of the prescriptions after returning home from Iraq when he complained of insomnia, back pain, nightmares and anxiety. When he was prescribed "powerful cocktails of psychiatric drugs and narcotics", his depression and hopelessness only deepened. He reported himNew York Timesthat he told the doctor that he believed he should have died in Iraq. Three types of antidepressants, a sedative, a sleeping aid and two powerful painkillers were found in his bloodstream after his death. Mena was only 23 years old when he died.
Manker was fortunate to begin his career as a law professor at a college in Illinois. Mena was obviously not so lucky. These are just two cases of dangerous drug use that resulted from military actions. There are many, many more examples that could be cited. While Manker was fortunately able to avoid long-term addiction problems as a result of his unknown drug use, Mena's drug use and abuse consumed him and led to his death. Going back to the idea that civilians are unable to understand what veterans go through, Mena's case is a prime example of this. To the outside world, he was probably perceived as an addict who may not even be contributing to society when, in reality, he had already devoted a significant portion of his youth to public service, and the duty and protection of everyday civilians. This paradox is why soldiers and their incredible work can sometimes "fall through the cracks" in normal, everyday society. People are busy living their lives and probably don't apply the necessary empathy to the plight of returning veterans. Through education and understanding, hopefully, that will change. After all, the drug and alcohol addiction crisis for veterans continues to worsen. To really understand the situation, numerous statistics are available and studies have been conducted to help us determine how deep the problems go.
The numbers: How many veterans are dealing with addiction?
Most of society knows that addiction problems are more prevalent among veterans who are either active duty or have returned from war. However, in order to quantify the problem, we need to look at actual numbers and statistics.
Approximately 40,000 Canadian troops served in Afghanistan; 158 of them died while in office. Although the death toll was low relative to the number of soldiers, the number of soldiers who filed disability claims upon returning from war was much higher, 3,424. Of those who filed, more than 80 percent received more than one separate diagnosis.
In 2013, 1 in 6 regular full-time members of the Canadian Armed Forces reported symptoms of at least one of the following: major depressive episode, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol abuse or dependence. This number includes troops that were not deployed or engaged, stationed in military zones, or engaged in live action. However, 12-month rates of PTSD and panic disorder were twice as high among soldiers who deployed in support of the Afghanistan mission than those who did not.
Homelessness often goes hand in hand with addiction, and 2,250 Canadian veterans were homeless or regularly used shelters in 2015, according to a study by Employment and Social Development Canada. That figure represented 2.7 percent of the total homeless population in Canada at the time. The average age of homeless veterans was 52, compared to 37 in the general homeless population, and many veterans cited conditions such as alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health issues as causes of their homelessness.
These numbers are just a snapshot of the extent to which addiction and alcoholism affect military veterans nationally. For many veterans affected by addiction, there are resources available to seek help. The Veterans Support Network offers a variety of information and resources that can help veterans learn about everything from individual or family counseling to treatment and recovery plans as they relate to addiction. In addition, the Government of Canada offers province-by-province addiction helplines to provide individuals with substance abuse problems with the knowledge and information needed to seek help and treatment.
While resources are available to veterans who need them, some of the responsibility for better understanding the issues veterans face should be shouldered by ordinary civilians. In addition to eternal gratitude and appreciation for the service our military members have provided, greater patience and empathy must be expressed for individuals dealing with addiction and mental health issues. The stigma associated with these types of disorders and conditions is still very real, but it needs to be overcome. After all, it's impossible to truly know what veterans face on a daily basis—and why they may have turned to addiction—without being in their shoes.