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Female Veterans and Drug Addiction: 15 Ways to Support their Ongoing Battle

Coming back home after serving in the military can be a very challenging time for those who have bravely served our country. The National Conference of State Legislatures states that the “transition from military to civilian life varies for each female veteran just as it does for male veterans. Though many women reintegrate with ease, others may struggle either initially or months down the road. Challenges may be related to employment, housing, health and mental health, education and other factors.”

One issue of concern is the potential for drug or alcohol abuse or addiction. Misuse of substances may start while they’re in the military, or after they’ve come home. Female veterans may be prescribed medication such as opioids for pain management from a service-related injury, which then leads to dependency and ultimately addiction. (It’s important to note that addiction isn’t always the result of taking prescribed medications to manage pain, although it is a possibility, particularly when the patient is also coping with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or a similar condition.)

Likewise, female veterans may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to cope with the symptoms of depression or other mental illness when the underlying condition has not been diagnosed or is not being adequately treated.

For various reasons, women don’t always receive the support they need upon returning to civilian life, and as a result, some turn to self-medication through substance abuse as a means of coping. It is important that female veterans receive the proper treatment, guidance, and support to provide the best chance for long-term recovery and lasting wellness – without relying on harmful substances to treat any mental and physical issues they may be suffering.

What You’ll Find in This Guide:

  • Female Veterans Return to Society
  • Educating Yourself
  • Triggers, Listening, and Expressing Your Concerns
  • Encouraging Professional Help and Support Groups
  • Other Ideas to Support a Female Veteran Addicted to Drugs
  • Resources for Drug Addiction and Co-occurring Disorders

Female Veterans Return to Society

This section covers challenges female veterans may face when re-entering civilian society. If you know a female veteran, it’s important to offer support and learn about the struggles they may face when re-acclimating to ‘ordinary’ life. Some possible difficulties she may face include fitting in to her old life, PTSD, other mental illness, and in some cases, homelessness.

Allow them time to adjust to their old way of life, routines, family, and friends. Coming home, back into society, can be a very difficult process for any veteran. Air Force Wounded Warrior explains that women need to adjust when they get home. Patricia Hayes, the VA’s chief consultant on women’s health, states, “We’re undergoing a culture change within the Department of Veterans Affairs. [Female veterans] need time to work through [what] they’ve been exposed to.” She adds, “A lot of women say they’re thrust right back into family life. They tell us, ‘The laundry is piled up.’” Female veterans are faced with an extraordinary amount of challenges all at once. It is important to keep this in mind as you’re supporting your loved one.

Be aware that drug addiction can lead to homelessness for veterans. Human Rights Watch reports that a VA program examined a “program for chronically homeless veterans, many of whom struggle with alcohol and drug dependence as well as mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression. Alcohol and drug dependence are strongly associated with homelessness, both among veterans and in the general population.” The report goes on to highlight that almost 60,000 veterans are homeless “on any given night, and about 400,000 veterans may be homeless or live in an unstable housing situation sometime during each year.” In fact, female veterans represent the fastest-growing portion of the homeless population in the United States.

Understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it can affect your loved one. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, some of the situations that can cause PTSD for female soldiers and veterans include:

  • Participating in active combat missions
  • Military Sexual Trauma (MST)
  • Feeling alone and isolated
  • Worrying about family

It is reported that women who have close friends and other loved ones in their lives have an easier time adjusting to coming home to post-war life.

Educating Yourself

If you know a female veteran – whether or not you suspect she may have an active addiction or have knowledge of substance abuse – it’s a good idea to learn as much as possible about abuse and addiction so that you can identify warning signs and intervene to obtain help before addiction takes hold and causes destruction. You will also need to remember that recovery does not happen overnight; it’s an ongoing process. Don’t blame yourself for your loved one’s problems. You can love her, support her, and encourage her, but her addiction is in no way your fault.

Learn as much about drug abuse and addiction as you can. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) states, “It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will.” People battling substance addiction need empathy and support.

Understand that recovery is an ongoing process, and support this fact with your loved one. It cannot and will not happen overnight, and there may be relapses. This is true of female veterans as well as anyone else battling drug or alcohol addiction.

Avoid blaming yourself for your loved one’s addiction. You can support them and encourage them, but you can’t force them to seek help or get better. HelpGuide.org (HG) states, “You can’t control your loved one’s decisions. Letting the person accept responsibility for his or her actions is an essential step along the way to recovery.”

Triggers, Listening, and Expressing Your Concerns

Ask the female veteran in your life what her triggers are that drive her to abuse drugs or alcohol. Are her triggers certain places or certain people? Also, listening to your loved one is crucial, and this must always be done without judgment. Speak up and let your loved one know that you are concerned, while also offering your help and support.

Ask your loved one what triggers they have when it comes to their drug addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “There will be triggers everywhere that could promote a relapse—such as driving by places where the person once took drugs, or seeing friends who provided those drugs.” It is helpful to talk about this with your loved one and help them by encouraging them to avoid their triggers whenever possible or develop coping strategies that provide alternative ways to overcome the desire to use.

Listen to your loved one, without judgment, as they share their feelings and issues. Even simply sitting with your loved one or encouraging them to participate in an alternative activity – even something simple and practical such as washing the dishes – can be very healthy for them.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) encourages you to speak up. “Talk to the person about your concerns, and offer your help and support, including your willingness to go with them to get help… the earlier addiction is treated, the better.” The individual may not be ready to completely open up to you, but at least you’ve started a conversation and they know that you care and are there for them.

Encouraging Professional Help and Support Groups

The need for professional help for female veterans battling substance abuse or addiction is examined in this section. Also highlighted are the positive effects of support groups and information on co-occurring disorders, and the potential risk factors and causes that may increase the risk of addiction.

Encourage your loved one to seek professional treatment. DrugFree.org concludes that once you start talking with your loved one about treatment, you may find that they didn’t even realize that their misuse of drugs or alcohol was causing problems or even recognized by those around them. There are some important details to remember when encouraging your loved one:

  • Avoid having serious discussions about her addiction when you or she are under the influence
  • Be sure to protect yourself as well as those around you from physical harm
  • If violence occurs, contact the police and/or emergency medical services if needed
  • Set appropriate limits to protect your home, your finances, and your relationships – stick to them, even when it’s difficult

Help her find a treatment center or physician for help beginning the recovery process. There are many treatment facilities all over the country, both inpatient and outpatient. One helpful source to find one of these facilities is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) locator. This locator is “an on-line source of information about substance abuse and/or mental health treatment facilities in the United States.” Additionally, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Health Administration offers different VA Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Treatment Programs. Their online locator will help you find a program in your area.

Encourage her to join a support group. According to Military One Source, support groups offer “a safe place where you can connect with others who know what you’re going through and are an effective way to discuss and receive support for the challenges of maintaining sobriety.” There are many different support groups for both substance abuse and narcotics abuse as well as groups to help family and friends develop coping mechanisms while supporting their loved ones through recovery. Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous are widely available on military bases and in civilian communities alike.

Be aware of the likelihood of co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse. Often, mental illness occurs with drug addiction. When a mental illness and a substance abuse or addiction occur at the same time, it is called a co-occurring disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that “people with co-occurring disorders are best served through integrated treatment. With integrated treatment, practitioners can address mental and substance use disorders at the same time, often lowering costs and creating better outcomes.” If you believe your loved one may have a co-occurring disorder, encourage them to seek help.

Other Ideas to Support a Female Veteran Addicted to Drugs

This section offers information about Veterans Affairs PTSD Treatment Programs for female veterans. Also documented are the benefits of exercise, the need for a safe neighborhood, volunteering, and social activities for female veterans battling substance abuse disorders.

Find help specifically for PTSD. There are VA PTSD Treatment Programs available for female veterans. These programs, which include both inpatient and outpatient options, include:

  • Women’s Stress Disorder Treatment Teams (WSDTTs)
  • Inpatient and residential treatment programs specifically designed for women
  • Rehabilitation centers offering cohort treatment or separate wings for women
  • Women Veterans Comprehensive Health Centers
  • Women Veterans Homelessness Programs

Other tips for female veterans with PTSD include having contact with other trauma victims and maintaining a regular exercise routine. Regular physical activity takes away some of the physical tension, provides a break from difficult thoughts and memories, and can help improve self-esteem. If the female veteran lives in an unsafe neighborhood, she may want to think about moving to a safer neighborhood to reduce possible anxiety arising from fear of community violence.

Encourage social activities. This may be a very difficult step to take, and it may take a lot of time before your loved one is ready. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, social activities and volunteering can give a person the sense of belonging in their community and is a way to reconnect with other people in the community. You may also encourage your loved one to invest in developing and nurturing personal relationships with friends and family. You can also offer emotional support as she works to change her habits and behaviors.

Resources for Drug Addiction and Co-occurring Disorders

The following resources, both general and military, offer information about support groups, treatment options, help for military families, as well as the Veteran’s Crisis Line.

The Veteran’s Crisis Line “connects veterans in crisis (and their families and friends) with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders” confidentially, according to its website. Call 1-800-273-8255 or TTY 1-800-799-4889 or Text 838255.

The Women Veterans Hotline is “an incoming call center that receives and responds to questions from women Veterans, their families, and caregivers across the nation about available VA services and resources.” Call 1-855-VA-WOMEN (829-6636).

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Supporting Military Families website offers resources and information about jobs, health, substance abuse and mental health, rural health, and children and families.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse the Science of Drug Abuse & Addiction website offers drug facts about substance abuse in the military, and lists other related resources.

The Narcotics Anonymous vision is that “every addict in the world has the chance to experience our message in his or her own language and culture and find the opportunity for a new way of life.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program Locator.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also has a helpful Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.

While female veterans face specific challenges upon re-entering civilian life, providing support and guidance to help her cope with changes and deal with stress that may be continuing to impact her as a result of the experiences she endured during deployment can help her to avoid turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. If you know a female veteran who has developed a substance abuse problem or addiction, be as supportive as possible while encouraging her to receive professional treatment to overcome her illness and achieve long-term recovery.