When President Obama issued orders this month to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, one priority was clear to me: We must prepare for the surge of veterans who will need substance abuse treatment when they come home.
No doubt, committing more troops to the war will mean more soldiers exposed to combat, more individuals left with life-changing injuries, and, as a result, more men and women turning to drugs and alcohol to numb their physical and psychological pain.
Having worked as a psychology intern at the Brooklyn VA, I have witnessed the complicated mental health issues many military personnel confront. When they return from war, their brains do not automatically flip a switch that allows them to readjust to civilian life. Consequently, the mental shift that occurs in the war zone can lead to a host of lingering symptoms, not limited to insomnia, flashbacks, nightmares, and paranoia. Searching for relief, they are prone to self-medication through illicit substances. Others become addicted to the heavy painkillers prescribed to treat their physical wounds.
Often exposed to intense combat trauma—beyond the normal realm of exposure—those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq are particularly vulnerable. Many face multiple deployments, which increases the likelihood of injury and intensifies the “battlemind” they develop to survive. To date, an estimated 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War vets have post-traumatic stress disorder.
These profound challenges make Afghanistan, Iraq, and other military personnel a special population when it comes to treating addiction. Above all, when they seek help, they’re looking for people with military credibility who speak their language. For this reason, we as treatment providers have a responsibility to recruit and train staff who are educated to understand their experience.
In addition to dealing with vets’ chronic pain and psychological wounds, we must be prepared to address other critical issues that can trigger substance abuse, including homelessness, unemployment, and family difficulties. The VA estimates that about 131,000 vets are homeless on any given night and approximately twice that many may experience homelessness over the course of the year. About one out of every three homeless adults have put on a uniform and served our country. More than 70% of homeless veterans suffer from alcohol and other drug abuse problems.
When it comes to employment, in a 2007 Military.com survey, three-quarters of vets entering the civilian workforce reported “an inability to effectively translate their military skills to civilian terms.” The same survey found that 61% of employers felt they lacked “a complete understanding of the qualifications” of former service members. To this end, helping those who have served gain employable skills should be a component of an effective recovery plan. Of equal importance, we must extend counseling and support to family members, who are directly affected by the trauma servicemen and women experience, but who currently have limited resources for help.
This holistic strategy is part of our coordinated effort as we lay the framework of our new Veterans Program. While the VA and DoD have identified military-related mental health-issues as a top concern, they have also emphasized the role of local agencies and nonprofit organizations to help expand the available care and reach more service members, vets, and their families. With this in mind, in the coming months, we will meet with military personnel who are currently in treatment and begin to develop a program specifically tailored to meet their needs.
Although we cannot predict the fate of the men and women who will join our forces in Afghanistan, it is our duty to ensure that when they return, we will be there.Dr. Laura Blandy, PsyD Deputy Director of Military Services, Phoenix House Back to Index