Families of veterans can experience psychological and emotional stress while their loved one is deployed, and after they have returned home and retired from the service. Mental health disorders from the stress of active duty can lead veterans to develop a substance abuse disorder, which can negatively impact life at home.
There’s no question that members of the United States Armed Forces returning from combat or leaving active duty may face many challenges when they return from deployment or leave the service, such as:
- Adjusting to civilian life.
- Finding employment outside of the military.
- Returning to families they have not seen for months or years.
- Using veterans’ benefits after retiring from military service.
This pressure, as well as the stress and the experiences from their time in combat or on active duty, can contribute to the development of mental health and substance abuse problems among active duty and veterans.
The Impact on the Family
Stressors that families can experience when their veteran loved one has a substance abuse disorder can include caregiver burden, which may manifest as:1
- Feeling sympathy and worry for their loved one.
- Financial instability.
Understanding how substance abuse and associated struggles affect veterans is important to encourage them to seek help. However, it’s equally important to understand how these disorders can contribute to stress in military families and affect the health of family members.
As their veteran deals with these mental or substance disorders, spouses, children, parents, and siblings of service members may often struggle right alongside their loved ones.1
Behavioral changes like drinking a lot or abusing drugs, alongside personality changes from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or PTSD, can be very stressful and intense on families.
Depression among family members of the veteran can be common because they realize their loved one was not as safe as they had hoped when they were deployed. This can cause a shift in their world view, where they feel grief from loss of that feeling of safety.1
And, unfortunately, substance abuse and/or mental health disorders can, in some instances, increase the likelihood of emotional or physical violence from the military veteran.2
Spouses or Partners of Veterans
Partners of military veterans with PTSD and a co-occurring substance use disorder are proven to have more distress in their relationship and their family lives.3
Researchers were able to predict—based on symptoms of trauma in Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans—lower satisfaction in relationships the first year after returning home.4
In these instances, lower satisfaction can come from:3
- Intimacy issues.
- Less communication on their thoughts or emotions.
- Lower sexual interest.
In instances where a veteran has PTSD and/or a co-occurring substance use disorder, a veteran’s partner can often feel:3
- Less happy.
- Lower satisfaction in their relationship and life.
It can be challenging to confront and deal with the symptoms of PTSD and substance abuse their partners have. Coping with their veteran’s struggles may mean that their own needs go unaddressed in the relationship.
Children of Veterans
Similarly, children whose parents have PTSD may suffer mental and emotional stress. They may respond in certain ways like:5
- Displaying PTSD symptoms like those of their parent.
- Taking on a caregiving or “adult role” to help their parent.
- Academic problems at school.
- Sadness, anxiety, or extreme worry about the parent.
- Problems in relationships with friends, other family members, and romantic relationships later in life.
Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are less likely to receive other types of care they need, like medical or dental care. They are less likely to get prenatal care and early childhood care for the first two years of life. This stress may contribute to later substance abuse problems.6 Among families of veterans, substance abuse may compound other problems from mental health struggles.
Why Are Veterans at a High Risk for Substance Abuse?
High stress from time in combat leading to PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and physical pain can increase the risk of alcohol abuse, smoking cigarettes, prescription opioid and sedative abuse, and even illicit drug use like marijuana abuse.7
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects current and retired servicemen and women at a higher rate8 than the civilian population9. Military veterans returning from combat with depression or PTSD are around 5 times more likely to have a problem with family readjustment than veterans without those diagnoses.2
PTSD is one of the more common mental health disorders among the active duty and veteran population. It’s associated with high rates of:10
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Substance abuse.
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a hit to the head that results in causes a disruption in how the brain functions normally. A mild TBI is considered a concussion, but there are also moderate, severe, and penetrating diagnoses of TBI.11
A TBI from combat can lead to mental and behavioral changes that contribute to higher rates of addiction and suicide in veterans.12
A military veteran who experienced a TBI may be at a higher risk of:13
- Binge drinking.
- Opioid abuse.
Veterans are more likely to experience chronic pain than civilians.14
Combat injuries and bodily wear and tear from carrying heavy equipment or using ill-fitting gear or machines can lead to military veterans dealing with chronic pain. A military veteran’s doctor may prescribe opioids or other strong pain medications to help the vet control the pain. From here, illegal use of a prescription—such as taking too much at a time—can occur.15
How Veterans’ Families Can Help
When a loved one returns from a tour of duty, they may display new behaviors or emotional states, which could indicate PTSD, depression, substance abuse, a TBI, or chronic pain. The VA recommends that family members take a few steps to be supportive of their veteran loved one and encourage them to get help, such as:16
- Learn about PTSD, its symptoms, its impact, and how to take care of family members around the person with PTSD.
- Make genuine offers of help, like going to doctors’ appointments with the veteran.
- Offer to listen to the veteran if they need to talk or support them in other healthy ways if they do not want to talk.
- Plan relaxing family activities together, like enjoying a walk or going to a movie.
- Encourage the veteran to spend time with their children, close family members, or close friends who do not abuse substances.
You can also take a look at our guide for how to help a loved one who has a substance use disorder.
Treatments for Substance Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders
Military veterans who go to treatment will most likely encounter treatment options like:
- One-on-one, individual therapy.
- Group counseling and mutual support groups.
- Anger and stress management counseling, education, or training.
- Assertiveness training.
- Couples counseling.
- Family education classes.
- Family therapy, including for children and adolescents.
The VA has programs for PTSD and for substance use disorders. Some facilities across the U.S., like Recovery First, offer specific treatment tracks that are created for military veterans struggling with addiction and potentially co-occurring disorders.
Take Care of Yourself
The VA also points out that families of veterans need to take time to care for themselves. Family therapy and individual counseling are key components of this because therapy can help everyone understand the root causes of PTSD, how it impacts everyone, and how to develop healthier coping mechanisms.
Other ways the VA recommends caring for oneself include:
- Acknowledging emotions.
- Taking time to acknowledge that things can change, but it will take time.
- Caring for your physical health: exercise and meal plan.
- Finding time for activities and hobbies that are enjoyable, as well as seeing friends or family.
- Remembering the good things.
- Finding ways to make good memories during the healing process.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). Effects of PTSD on family.
- Sayers, S.L., Farrow, V.A., Ross, J., & Oslin, D.W. (2009). Family problems among recently returned military veterans referred for a mental health evaluation. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 70(2), 163-70.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Partners of Veterans with PTSD.
- Goff, B.S., Crow, J.R., Reisbig, A.M., & Hamilton, S. (2007). The impact of individual trauma symptoms of deployed soldiers on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(3), 344-53.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). When a Child’s Parent has PTSD.
- Smith, V.C., Wilson, C.R., & Committee on Substance Use and Prevention. (2016). Families affected by parental substance use. Pediatrics, 138(2).
- Saxon, A.J. (2011). Returning veterans with addictions.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). How common is PTSD in veterans?
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). How common is PTSD in adults?
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). Co-occurring conditions.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Traumatic brain injury and concussion.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). Traumatic brain injury and PTSD: focus on veterans.
- Brain Injury Association of America. (2018). Webinar: TBI Among Service Members & Veterans.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019). Pain: U.S. military and veterans.
- Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., & Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse Rehabilitation, 8, 69-77.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Helping a family member who has PTSD.