Military members are some of the strongest men and women in the world, both physically and mentally. But that strength can often overshadow or even hide perceived weaknesses when it comes to mental health and substance abuse. Whether you know someone in the military, or are serving yourself, there are many aspects of life to take care of before, during and after deployment or service to maintain overall health and stave off potential substance abuse. Maintaining and caring for the health of military members only helps make individuals stronger, which can unify and fortify service men and women across the globe.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 1 in 10 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have problems with drugs or alcohol. The department also shows that 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well. But there are many steps to help limit the chances that a veteran will develop a substance use disorder or mental health issues, and several of these methods start before and during active duty.
Preparing for Deployment
It’s important for everyone on active duty to take preventative health measures, but particularly those who will soon be deployed. Exercising positive health habits at home can help ease the transition to deployment, which offers a unique set of challenges to mental and physical health. While duties during deployment can be difficult and unpredictable, establishing a sense of normalcy at home, and knowing that everything is taken care of while you’re away, can have a positive impact on performance during a deployment.
There are many ways to ensure positive well-being before a deployment, including:
While your routine will likely vary during deployment, establishing a healthy sleep routine at home can give you a headstart later on. You want to be at your physical best for a deployment, and it’s harder to do so when you’re sleep deprived before arriving. Although your sleep schedule during deployment could potentially be disrupted (by jetlag, unconventional hours, etc.), rising early and resting often at home beforehand can set you up for success, and help you manage stress better overseas.
The military has set up a series of health assessments to ensure that each member remains mentally and physically well before and after a deployment. The Pre-Deployment Health Assessment is taken within 120 days of a deployment and helps evaluate your overall health to ensure that you are proactive with your well-being, and receive appropriate care if necessary. Resilience training is a key part of the preparation, and includes physical, emotional, social, spiritual and family categories to strengthen relationships and stamina. By taking preliminary measures, you can receive treatment before deployment so that you are able to offer your best. The preliminary assessment can be used as a basis of comparison after deployment to ensure consistency and overall health following time away from home.
Spending time with friends and family before a deployment can help you keep things in perspective while reminding you of what’s important while you’re away. Seeing friends and family can help foster positive relationships while you’re deployed and encourage people to keep in touch with letters, emails and messages. Feeling close to home before and during a deployment can help keep you grounded and healthy in the long run because you always know you have a support system at home.
Because veterans and active duty military are at risk for substance use and mental health disorders, staying on track ahead of a deployment can help you avoid using substances to cope. Even a substance like tobacco, which is widespread in many branches of the military, can become addictive. Because you’ll need to be at your physical and mental best for a deployment, avoiding drugs and alcohol early on will help you deal with the challenges of a deployment without substances later on. Not to mention that some substances like illicit drugs are explicitly banned and can result in discharge from service.
Much like establishing good sleep patterns and family relationships, being physically fit before deployment can ensure that you perform your duties well and are able to manage stress. While your food and fitness routine may be disrupted during a deployment, having a strong base for nutrition and exercise enables you to adapt and know your body’s strengths and abilities ahead of time. You’ll also be more likely to fall back into a health routine when you return. Plus, regular exercise — whether it’s pushups by your bed at night or weight training in the gym — can help you stay mentally fit and potentially preclude feelings of anxiety and depression.
Money should be the last thing on your mind during a deployment, so ensuring that everything is set up before you leave can help you breathe easy. There are several ways to automate or handle finances while you’re away. If you’d rather have someone you know and trust handling things, entrusting a spouse or other family member to manage money can be ideal. Make sure they know and understand when any recurring payments need to be made, and how to allocate spending and savings. You will likely be able to take care of electronic payments online, but for peace of mind, enrolling in direct deposit and autopay for some expenses can be helpful.
Staying Healthy During Deployment
Deployment can be a challenge for military members and their friends and families, full of stress, trauma and potential danger. These can trigger issues like PTSD, depression, substance abuse and addiction, which can be detrimental to your health, career and family. But this doesn’t have to be the reality for all active service men and women. Managing your mental health early on in deployment can help you stay on the right track and avoid the negative side effects of such uniquely challenging and rewarding service.
Countering Combat Stress
Because active combat is often far more stressful than any training exercise, it is common for service men and women to experience some form of combat operational stress. Much like sore muscles after an intense workout, the emotional and psychological effects of active duty can be straining. Stress is not a sign of weakness, but rather a natural reaction to dangerous and difficult situations.
Contributing Factors to Combat Operational Stress
- Long-term deployment (six months or more)
- Lack of sleep (less than six to eight hours per day)
- Physical injury
- Witnessing death of soldiers, civilians and unit members
- Personal or team loss during combat
- Close calls or near misses
- Carrying or handling human remains
- Low trust levels between unit members
- Thoughts of home or family situations
- Previous mental health problems
- Lack of experience
Some signs of combat stress include:
- Physical and mental strain
- Moral and emotional dilemmas
- Feelings of failure, regret and shame
- Concerns of disappointment
- Feeling limited or restricted
- Withdrawing from groups and friends
- Diet changes
- Mood swings
- Loss of self-confidence
- Difficulty eating, sleeping or performing normal daily tasks
There is no instant cure for combat operational stress, but ignoring it will only elevate issues. Not acting can be more dangerous than addressing stress, as it can lead to deeper mental health issues like PTSD and depression, which often coincide with substance abuse. Not addressing it also puts others in danger, since your unit depends on you and vice versa. Most branches have programs in place to help active duty members cope with operational stress before it gets out of hand.
While the steps for each branch may vary, the U.S. Navy uses the following strategies when working with individuals going through combat operational stress. This model can be used by Navy leadership to help manage units and individuals, but is also a helpful resource for those on active duty.
Individual, unit and family strength is at the core of establishing resilience, support and belief systems.
Balancing competing priorities can help mitigate inevitable stress and accompanying health risks. Although it cannot be completely prevented, eliminating stress in small ways can play a key role in development.
Knowing yourself and the individuals in your unit can help you identify changes in behavior. Identity is based on the understanding of self and worth.
Support can come from the individual themselves or a friend, a unit leader, chaplain, or medical or psychological provider.
Like most ailments, a stress injury heals over time. With monitoring and proper resources, service men and women can remain or return as active and productive unit members.
These are not definitive steps for healing, but rather guidelines for leaders and individuals. To learn more about resources available for combat operational stress, reach out to your specific branch. Finding help early on can help prevent further harm down the line. By seeking help from your respective branch, you can boost personal and group morale. Because others are counting on you, it’s important to find the help you need. With programs in place throughout the military, there is no shame in asking for help.
Transitioning to Civilian Life
Returning to civilian life after an extended period of time on active duty can be difficult. Reconciling the sights, sounds and realities of combat with the seemingly trivial aspects of everyday life is a challenge for many. Military veterans face a unique set of challenges and risks when returning to their daily lives, including issues like PTSD, depression, substance use disorder, chronic pain, flashbacks, anxiety, difficulty finding work and more. But with the right help and resources, it can be a smooth transition. Your Next Steps
While it can be difficult to get used to life as a civilian, the adjustment is easier with the right tools. Groups like the Transition Assistance Program can help ease the process. Other ways to help in the transition include:
- Spending quality time with friends and family
- Getting involved in the community
- Managing injuries or mental health with a trained physician
- Using prescription medications (especially opioids) only as directed to avoid misuse and potential addiction
- Engaging with veteran-friendly employers
- Pursuing education or advanced degrees at your own pace
- Maintaining a physical exercise routine
- Making time for daily reflection, which could include meditation, journaling or other spiritual practices
- Using transferable skills learned in the military to solve everyday problems at home or in professional environments
- Consulting with a financial planner to manage money earned while in service and plan for the future
- Find a network of other veterans to relate to
The positive effects of service can help you transition into civilian life. As a veteran or a person returning from deployment, you are equipped with unique skills and a sense of camaraderie that is unrivaled in many other professions. Although there is potential for PTSD or other behavioral health disorders, finding ways to connect can help preempt or manage these issues. If you find yourself struggling with mental health, or using substances like alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs to cope, reach out for help. Speaking with a family member or rehabilitation center like The Recovery Village can be the first step to finding healing in a supportive, understanding environment.
How to Help Active Duty Military
If you are a friend or family member of a military member, you know how difficult a deployment or active duty service can be. But there are several ways to help active duty military men and women, especially when it comes to treating mental health or substance use disorders. Some ways to help include:
- Maintaining contact before, during and after service or deployment
- Offering emotional support
- Being available to talk about experiences and emotions
- Encouraging and participating in healthy coping mechanisms and lifestyle choices
- Calling for help on behalf of your friend or family member (anonymous calls are available at many treatment centers)
Military personnel and veterans are an important part of communities across the United States. Ensuring they are taken care of and given the resources they need helps communities thrive. From workplaces and schools to places of worship and recreational locations, there is always something you can do to help someone you know, even it’s as small as being available to talk. If you notice changes in behavior or difficulty managing stress and emotions, reach out to family, speak to the person directly, or call a center like The Recovery Village to help prevent issues like PTSD and substance abuse from spiralling out of control.
Finding Drug and Alcohol Treatment for Active Duty Military
With approximately 18.5 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan displaying signs of PTSD or depression, it’s more important than ever to address the issues facing active military members and veterans. These men and women are faced with immeasurable stressors and have experiences that can change their minds and bodies for life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that 19.5 percent of service members returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan report experiencing a traumatic brain injury. The effects of service are both physical and mental, but cultural stigmas often limit the lengths people will go to find help.
Not asking for help for a behavioral or mental health concern can quickly escalate to issues like substance use disorder, homelessness and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors. These negative side effects are often intertwined, with 70 percent of homeless veterans also struggling with substance abuse. With early identification and treatment, you can help prevent further issues down the line. If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of war, combat, or service, reach out for help today to ensure a healthier tomorrow.
Types of Treatment
Treatment for active duty military members and veterans depends on the issue at hand. For mental health and substance use disorder, a treatment plan may include a combination of medical detox, inpatient, outpatient and sober living care options. A typical treatment plan for substance use disorder can incorporate any combination of the following:
This is often the first part of a treatment program. Detox can take place at a rehabilitation center or other medical office. Withdrawal symptoms and side effects can be life-threatening, so employing medical assistance is often a necessary step.
This is a more involved stage of residential treatment, with several hours of therapy and medical treatment. For those with severe addictions, intensive inpatient is often the springboard for recovery.
An inpatient program offers a stable living environment with involved treatment and 24-hour access to staff and nursing supervision.
This type of program uses evidence-based treatment for those who need more structure and access to staff. Some programs offer PHP to patients living on site, while others offer it for those living off site.
This program is usually reserved for patients who wish to reside in sober living housing, or at home with a strong support system. Clients are able to travel to a center for treatment during the day and return home at night.
For those who have been through other levels of treatment, or wish to balance treatment with a work schedule, outpatient care allows for check-ins and meetings throughout the week, usually during the morning, evening or weekend.
Substance Abuse Resources for Active Duty Military
By contacting your branch of the military, you will be able to find individual and group resources. Being open with leadership can help you receive the treatment that you need, whether you are struggling with mental health, substance abuse, or more. In addition to local or branch resources, you may find help with other organizations, including:
Military Crisis Line: This hotline was established to help in the event of a crisis situation involving a military member. This 24-hour line is completely confidential for service members and their loved ones.
Phone Number: 1-800-273-8255
Online Help: www.veteranscrisisline.net
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: The largest integrated health care systems in the United States, the VA can help you find resources. In some cases, active duty members can access VA facilities for emergency situations.
Phone Number: 1-844-698-2311
Online Help: www.va.gov
The Recovery Village: With several substance use disorder treatment centers across the country, The Recovery Village specializes in caring for substance abuse alongside co-occurring mental disorders to uncover and treat the roots of addiction.
Phone Number: 844-843-2946
Online Help: www.therecoveryvillage.com/contact
The contributions you make as a service member are invaluable, as is your health and well-being. Part of your service to your country is ensuring that you stay healthy and strong, whether you’re on active duty, or transitioning back to civilian life. With the right resources and help, you can overcome and manage issues like PTSD, depression, substance use disorder and more to continue positively contributing to your self, family, community and country.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.