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Causes of Drug Addiction in Veterans

Causes of Drug Addiction in Veterans

Many people who are serving or have served in the United States military have struggled with substance use disorders.

Veterans who have been exposed to combat and or suffered traumatic experiences often have co-occurring disorders, a combination of conditions including addiction and mental illness. Combat exposure and multiple deployments can perpetuate mental illness, and sufferers may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. As a rehab in Boston that offers both mental health and addiction treatment options for veterans, we wanted to share some common causes of drug addiction in veterans that you should be aware of.

What Causes Drug Addiction in Veterans?

Although the rate of veterans with substance abuse problems is ever increasing, it’s important to keep in mind that addiction doesn’t happen overnight. This complex disease is usually the result of persistent substance abuse, which various factors can trigger. Additionally, while there is a list of common root causes of substance abuse, many other things can perpetuate addiction. Below are some typical causes of drug abuse among veterans that you should look out for if you or a loved one are retired or active military members.

Family History of Addiction

The link between returning veterans and substance abuse can be greatly attributed to a family history of addiction, as family history is one of the most common causes of addiction because drug and alcohol addiction are genetic diseases. A parent’s drug or drinking problems can be passed down through generations. Many children of alcoholic parents, for example, often need to receive alcohol treatment themselves because they genetically inherit their parents’ drinking problems. While having a family history of addiction does not guarantee that you will also suffer from addiction, it significantly increases your risk.


Similar to family history, how, where, and who you grew up with can also contribute to your use of drugs or alcohol. If you’ve grown up with family members who are heavy drinkers or drug users, then you may learn their behaviors and possibly feel more comfortable engaging in substance abuse yourself. Many dangerous or self-destructive behaviors might become normal to you if you were constantly exposed to them during your upbringing. These behaviors may also become so normal that you may not realize the severity of your condition if you do develop a drug or alcohol problem.

This is why it’s important to surround yourself with sober people, especially if you have a family history of addiction or have loved ones who suffer from this condition. If you’re a veteran who’s in recovery from addiction, it’s also vital to build relationships with people who are sober and to create boundaries, even within your family and friends group.


Another leading cause of addiction in veterans is experiencing trauma. A traumatic event is an incident that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological damage. Common examples of traumatic experiences include accidents, natural disasters, chronic illness, injury, terrorism, witnessing death, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. You may feel threatened or extremely frightened during a traumatic experience, so much so that the fear stays with you.

While some people may heal from the effects of trauma exposure, others may experience frequent flashbacks or memories of the incident. These memories can bring on various physical and behavioral symptoms that may be distressing and prevent them from carrying out a full life. When these symptoms become persistent and severe enough, they may give way to a mental disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also known as “shell shock” among military personnel, many veterans suffer from PTSD and turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. At Banyan Massachusetts, we advocate for the importance of mental health treatment and therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating conditions like PTSD as well as addiction.

Mental Illness

Mental illness and addiction are also tightly linked, especially among veterans. Substance use disorders often co-occur with mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, and more. Drug and alcohol abuse is also especially prevalent among individuals with schizophrenia. Untreated mental illnesses can prevent a person from living a full life. Their career, relationships, and overall well-being can all be negatively impacted. The frustration, stress, and sadness caused by these issues cause people to turn to unhealthy and self-destructive coping mechanisms.

However, these methods are only temporary, and most forms of substance abuse can worsen mental health disorders' symptoms. Having an untreated mental illness and using drugs or alcohol to cope can create a vicious and harmful cycle.

Transitioning Back to Life After Deployment

Not only are veterans at an increased risk of developing a drug addiction as a result of combat exposure, military sexual trauma, injuries, and mental illness like PTSD, but they may also struggle with their transition back to everyday life. Life after deployment can be hard for men and women who have served in the military for years. It’s common for veterans to struggle financially, mentally, and relationally when they return home. Their mentality and character often change as a result of what they were exposed to, making the transition even more stressful. Additionally, any drug or alcohol problem they may have begun during deployment would travel home with them.

Although everyone is different, the causes of veteran substance abuse are pretty common. Unfortunately, the many stigmas and myths about addiction often make it difficult for individuals with this disorder to reach out for help. If you’re a veteran who struggles with addiction or you know someone who is, Banyan Treatment Centers is here for you. Not only do we offer drug and alcohol treatment in Massachusetts, but we also offer substance abuse help for veterans. For more information, call us today at 888-280-4763.

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Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.