An in-depth look at alcohol and substance abuse

The British Armed Forces see's around 15,000 people leave each year. The majority of veterans make a successful switch back into society and civilian life.

However a small but growing number are finding it difficult to make the transition and new studies are finding that a large number of veterans are suffering with mental health issues, unemployment, homelessness and the often common link with these problems, substance and alcohol abuse.

The greatest danger in terms of substance abuse is alcohol misuse. Recent UK studies from Combat Stress have demonstrated high numbers in the help-seeking population of veterans who are suffering with alcoholism and how the effects of this abuse is causing severe issues with mental health and a severe deterioration in quality of life.

What are the causes?

There is a strong culture of drinking within the Armed Forces with a work hard, play hard attitude. Loneliness and boredom can sometimes play a role in contributing to excessive alcohol consumption. This can turn into addiction or misuse, and carry on into life outside the military. In cases where veterans have had experiences of war that have affected them psychologically, alcohol abuse can hide underlying severe mental problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What are the signs?

It's not always easy for people to spot the signs of alcoholism in themselves and it's often family and friends that need to come to the rescue and point out that there may be a problem.

Some warning signs of alcoholism include:

  • Having issues at your job that can be linked to your alcohol use.
  • Drinking in risky situations, such as before you drive.
  • Frequent blackouts that cause you not to remember what happened while you were drinking.
  • Getting hurt or hurting someone else after you have been drinking.
  • Continuing to drink even though it's causing you to have serious health concerns.

Drug abuse

The use of drugs is a very serious offence for anyone serving in the Armed forces - there is a zero tolerance approach. The disciplinary repercussions for drug use in the military can often lead to keeping addiction hidden in fear of dismissal. This can lead into civilian life when veterans leave the military and continue to use drugs, but also keep their addiction hidden from friends and family. Prolonging and refusing to acknowledge the problem can lead to deterioration in your family and professional life. Substances such as cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, along with prescription drugs are some of the most common drugs veterans have problems with.

Addiction & PTSD

There is a clear link between alcohol, drug abuse and trauma. To mask the symptoms of PTSD, trauma patients often self-medicate. To establish the severity of the addiction or trauma, it's important for a clinician to understand the depth of the problem, along with the volume being consumed. This is a difficult process and therapy is often needed to be able to establish the best way to help and structure a unique recovery programme.

Managing substance abuse issues - Steps to take

1. ADMIT you have a problem. Don't feel ashamed. You're not on your own.

2. SHARE your concerns with your spouse or family. They can support you.

3. SPEAK with your GP and request a specialist veterans assessment.

4. CONTACT a Veterans' Gateway advisor, many of whom are veterans themselves, who can connect you with a specialist partner for help. Charities like Alcoholics Anonymous, Samaritans and support programmes on the NHS can also help.

5. READ veterans' stories and mental wellbeing expert advice on Veterans' Gateway website.

6. TALK about your experiences at a local peer support group led by veterans.

7. KEEP ASKING If your episode of care has ended; ask for more help if needed.

8. DON'T GIVE UP Keep trying until you find the right help that suits you.

For help from our partners, see our guides below:

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