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Problems for Veterans Seeking Substance Abuse Treatment

The Austin American-Statesman reported in September 2012 that of the Texas veterans who have died since their service in Iraq or Afghanistan, a full-one third passed away from drug overdoses, suicide, or traffic accidents. The newspaper’s investigation reveals what law enforcement officials as well as local communities have been slow to recognize: Even though our veterans honor us by serving our country, we fail to reciprocate that honor by adequately treating their addiction and abuse problems.

The average age of these dying veterans is only 28 years old. They leave behind them wives, children, and families who mourn them and simultaneously question the need for their loss. Many of these untimely passages could have been prevented had their families and friends recognized the dangers of the antidepressant drugs they were taking and helped them find appropriate drug rehabilitation centers

As reported on Statesmen-com   http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local-military/texas-war-veteran-deaths-studied/nSPJs/  the figures stack up like this:

  • Of 266 Texas veterans’ deaths investigated, more than one-third of them died from a toxic combination of drugs, from the overdose of a single substance such as an antidepressant, or from suicide.
  • Of those 266, one-fifth of the fatalities resulted from vehicular accidents, with figures unavailable for the percentage that were driving under some type of intoxication.
  • Of 46 veterans with a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), only two of them died from natural causes. That’s a mortality rate of 83 percent.

Many of our returning veterans suffer from both depression as well as a physical disability resulting from the war, seeking to self-medicate, they too often combine antidepressants with pain medication,  a deadly cocktail. Add to those medications a real cocktail—on those occasions when the young men and women decide to add alcohol to their regimen, you have a recipe for disaster.

Almost 20 percent of the 266 deaths were attributable to suicide. The real number may be higher because deaths were not counted as suicide if the decedent did not leave a note.

Too many veterans need effective treatment in drug rehabilitation centers but fail to receive it. The Veterans Administration insists that it can only provide treatment when it is requested.  Protocols for administration of pain drugs and those for PTSD have been implemented, but according to the investigation from the Austin newspaper, the VA is failing to assess fair adequate numbers of returning veterans. This prevents them from recognizing the scope of the problem as a whole.

Many veterans receive prescriptions to treat their pain or depression without adequate education or counseling about the dangers of taking a high dose of medication. They do not anticipate the overwhelming effect on their bodies when they combine drugs or use drugs with alcohol.

Dr. Ann Blake Tracy, Executive Director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, commented on this story, stating that the young ages and physiology of our returning soldiers—with an overwhelming number of them under the age of 25—makes them more susceptible to side effects such as suicidal and even homicidal ideation.

While there are veterans turning to the drug rehabilitation centers at VA Hospitals, others seek help from community providers. This is sometimes because of access to services, and other times it’s because they want to hide their problems from the military machine. Often it’s a member of the family who turns to a community service provider.

In Oklahoma and some other states, veterans participating in drug rehabilitation centers may leave those programs because new laws forbid them to smoke cigarettes.  http://newsok.com/tobacco-using-vets-fear-they-could-be-asked-to-leave-state-owned-centers/article/3663305 According to a story in the online version of The Oklahoman, a law passed early in 2012 has now gone into effect forbidding smoking in state-run facilities. About 20 percent of those veterans smoke cigarettes. Even though cigarettes were provided when they went to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, they now have to give them up if they want to continue treatment.

Those who do seek help for mental health or substance abuse often feel that counselors and social workers fail to understand the military culture. How can a licensed therapist without wartime experience understand the stresses of deployment, the MREs (ready-to-eat meals), and the lack of privacy while showering and sleeping? Many of them feel frustrated just trying to tell their story to a therapist when they have to stop and explain a slew of military abbreviations and anagrams or describe what they were doing within the context of a day.

Meanwhile, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that almost 600,000 veterans suffer from co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders in a given 12-month period. The number is staggering. The consequences are frightening.

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