Addiction has many faces. Sadly, one of them is young veterans who have bravely put their lives on the line in foreign lands.
Mental health professionals are reporting an alarming rise in the abuse of prescription drugs by young veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Phil Landis, CEO of the non-profit Veterans Village of San Diego, “The younger veterans we’re seeing have really fallen hard and they’ve fallen fast. Many of them are addicted to prescribed drugs. We don’t see that much among our other veterans here.”
Returning veterans face challenges in readjusting to civilian life and finding employment and affordable housing. These challenges may be insurmountable when drug addiction is a factor. Drug addiction brings a greater risk of homelessness for veterans. In an interview in the San Diego North County Times, Landis commented on the speed with which today’s young veterans are spiraling into homelessness. A downward cycle that used to take place over an 8 to 10 year period is now occurring in just a year or two.
High Rate of Abuse among Veterans
According to the Pentagon, the rate of prescription drug addiction in the military is about 11%, which is more than twice as high as the rate in the civilian population. The drugs most often abused are pain killers, especially OxyContin and Vicodin. Many young veterans simultaneously abuse alcohol. A recent study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed male and female veterans are equally likely to become addicted to prescription drugs, including pain medication, tranquilizers and stimulants.
Increase in Pain Medication Prescriptions
One of the contributing factors to the rise in veteran prescription drug dependency could be the ease with which these drugs can be obtained in the military. Military doctors wrote almost 4 million prescriptions for pain medication in 2009, compared to less than 1 million in 2001. Of the 350,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly half suffer from chronic pain caused by combat injuries. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also common among returning veterans and another possible cause for prescription drug abuse.
Lack of Government Treatment Programs
Many young veterans with drug abuse problems are not referred to treatment programs. The Department of Defense and other government agencies have begun research into drug abuse among veterans, but the emphasis of this research is often on prevention rather than treatment. In the meantime, many veterans will continue to suffer from prescription drug addiction and its devastating effects on their lives.