Today, the United States faces a nationwide epidemic that kills tens of thousands every year; opioid addiction. What makes opioid addiction so prevalent is that no demographic is immune to its development. However, veterans are experiencing the crippling effects of opioid addiction more than anyone else.
A 2011 study revealed that patients of the Veterans Health Administration are 2 times as likely to die from an accidental overdose than non-veterans. This stems back to the original purpose of prescribed opioids: to treat pain. The JAMA Internal Medicine reported in 2014 that just about half of returning veterans suffer from chronic pain, whereas a quarter represents the general population. As a result, opioids are being prescribed more than ever before. 15% of the U.S. military depends on opioids post-deployment, versus 4% of the general public.
Sabrina Franks is a recovery assistant at a Volunteers of America Adult Detox center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The residential program, which focuses on the homeless and low-income men and women, are now collaborating with Veteran Affairs to prioritize desperate veterans. The decision provided Franks a different perspective on the differences between servicemen and women seeking help and the program’s remaining clientele.
“I’ve noticed they are more closed off about what they’re going through,” Franks told Talbott Recovery in this exclusive interview. “Our clients come in, and they’re very open about their symptoms. Whereas, veterans come in and they just lie in bed. They’re clearly miserable, but they won’t come to staff or really engage with a lot of other clients.”
Franks partly attributes it to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which she said is common among the veterans at the center. “Also, there’s the idea that you have to be ‘army strong.’”
When it comes to the substances that drive veterans to their door, Franks said it depends on the client’s age. “With the older veterans, I’ve noticed it’s more alcohol. The younger veterans that have come in I’ve noticed it’s more opiates that are a problem.” For those in the latter group, she said many cite injury as the pathway to abuse. “I’ve heard that a few times from them and from other people–that injury is what led them to addiction.”
Sean M. experienced all of this first hand as an Airborne Ranger in Afghanistan.
“I did not realize the toll that multiple deployments took on my mental health,” he wrote in the story he posted on the Heroes in Recovery website. Rather than opioids, however, Sean turned to alcohol. “With every deployment, I came back and drank a little bit more.” This continued until he was admitted into the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP). “I was an ASAP rehab failure.”3
Forced out of the Army, PTSD and alcoholism took over. “My life fell apart…PTSD and alcohol dependence were killing me physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.” Several stints in rehab followed until finally, in 2012, something changed. “That was when I finally got it. I finally did it for myself.”
The strength to go through recovery after several relapses is a feat Franks said is something she’s seen in her own program’s veteran clients.
“I think they go through the same things with addiction that other people go through in terms of it taking them a few times to commit to going into treatment.” But, she said, “I do feel like when they do commit to recovery, they do tend to be stubborn about it.”
If you are looking for treatment for drug addiction, below are links to drug rehab centers in major cities across America:
- Drug Addiction Help in Milwaukee
- Drug Addiction Help in Albuquerque
- Drug Addiction Help in Tucson
- Drug Addiction Help in Fresno
- Drug Addiction Help in Sacramento
Thankfully for people like Sean, Veteran Affairs is becoming more efficient in treatment as well as prevention regarding opioid addiction and their servicemen and women. VA centers are increasingly introducing non-drug involved therapies for handling chronic pain such as yoga, acupuncture, physical therapy and mindfulness. The Veteran Affairs created the Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013 to more efficiently track opioid use among veterans in their healthcare system. Lastly, the VA has reduced supply, decreasing the number of veterans receiving opioids by 20% and dosages for near 17,000 patients.
But the battle is not over. From 2010 to 2015, the U.S. saw a 55% increase in the number of veterans struggling with opioid addiction. However, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s deputy under secretary for health and organizational excellence, is staying positive.
“I’m very pleased to say that we have made substantial progress across the system,” she said in an interview with Frontline. “We’re not done, but it is literally a priority that is part of the fabric across our system, and we monitor this on a regular basis.”