Alcoholism in Veterans: Causes & Effects

A 2016 study, in which individuals from the UK Armed Forces took an AUDIT test, found that 61% (66,958) were at increased risk of alcohol-related harm [1].

A similar investigation by the University of Liverpool found that 10% of military personnel in the UK drank more than 50 units of alcohol per week. This was considerably higher than a group of police officers also assessed. [2]

Why do Veterans Fall into Alcoholism?

Beer

There are several reasons why those who have been part of the armed forces are more susceptible to succumbing to alcohol abuse. These include:

1. Trauma and pain

Those who serve in the army or navy are more likely to experience traumatic, outright horrifying things. They witness explosions, violence, grievous injuries, and death.

More than most, they see inhumane and graphic events and are prepared to expect these things.

When they return home, these same individuals are therefore more likely to experience trauma or, more seriously, develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition causes intense anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares.

In order to cope, veterans can turn to frequent and excessive alcohol use. The effects of being drunk can act as a sedative, soothing anxiety and allowing them to forget about their painful memories for a while.

Over time, however, they can come to rely on this.

2. Lack of purpose

Life as a soldier is often something individuals are very proud of. Throughout their career, they are taught to take to their roles within teams and wider frameworks with seriousness and devotion.

When their careers end, this can leave veterans feeling without purpose. They can wonder what they are to dedicate their time to or find that other careers and pastimes do not satisfy them in the same way.

Alcohol use can therefore become a way for veterans to spend their time. It can also act as a way for them to escape the fact that they have no alternative ways to spend it, slowly getting out of hand and becoming dependent.

3. Loss and heartache

Unlike other occupations, life as a soldier sometimes comes with the reality that colleagues can get hurt or die while doing their job. Combat can result in fatal or life-changing injuries, and accidents can also occur with similar results.

Veterans can therefore turn to alcohol as a way to cope with this dangerous line of work. They can drink to soothe the pain of losing friends that they love, or to dampen the fear that they themselves could suffer in the future.

The Consequences of Alcoholism for Veterans

Alcohol addiction

Drinking high volumes of alcohol – either on a daily basis or in excessive binges – can have disastrous consequences for physical and mental health. These include:

  • Increased risk of alcohol poisoning
  • Increased risk of developing serious health disorders, especially relating to organ functionality
  • Increased chance of harming themselves or others
  • Strained familial relationships
  • Financial difficulties

Veterans can also experience specific consequences, including:

  • Increase in severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Alcohol is a depressant, and depressive feelings can worsen when the sensation of being drunk has passed
  • A decline in physical health can exacerbate a veteran’s sense of lacking purpose

Spotting Alcoholism in a Veteran

Despite its notoriety for being difficult to spot, alcoholism has several warning signs that indicate when an individual might be suffering. These include:

  • Becoming socially distant – Those who abuse alcohol tend to centre their life around it, meaning they lose interest in maintaining relationships with friends and family.
  • Struggling to function – If a veteran has a new job, they might become complacent in it, failing to carry out basic tasks or maintain their attendance.
  • Appearing intoxicated – Consistently being disorientating, talking with a slur, and looking tired might be an indication that alcohol is being abused.
  • Abandoning hobbies – If a veteran loses all interest in things they have always enjoyed, it might be that they are becoming consumed in figuring out how to ensure they have access to alcohol.
  • Shady behaviour – If an individual acts cagey about their alcohol consumption – lying about their drinking or hiding alcohol around the home – it may be that they are consuming an unacceptable volume.

How to Help a Veteran Suffering from Alcoholism

Support

If you know a veteran who shows signs of having developed alcoholism, it can be tough to know how best to approach the situation. There are several available options listed below, but judging which is most appropriate will depend on the specific situation itself.

1. Talking to them

If an individual does not address their unhealthy behaviour, the first and most simple option available is to try and talk to them about it. This is a discussion that requires patience and care, without any judgement being made of the individual.

This can take the form of asking a veteran how they are feeling recently, whether they might be drinking more than usual, or whether they have realised that their consumption has increased.

2. Holding an intervention

If a veteran denies their increased drinking or believes that it isn’t a problem, an intervention might be necessary. These see their loved ones joining together to address the problem of their drinking in an event centred around helping them come to terms with it.

In interventions, the goal is to support an individual to seek treatment, not to blame or punish them.

Discussions open up between attendees and an individual, with everyone sharing how the drinking has impacted them and how they are willing to help.

3. Directing them towards suitable support

If an individual wants to get better, it can be helpful to point them in the right direction of where they can get help. You can help them conduct research about what alcohol rehab facilities offer suitable support, get in touch with them, or accompany them to treatment.

4. Contact a professional

If you are unsure as to how to help, getting in touch with an alcoholism helpline or GP can help. Their guidance can help clarify how a veteran’s situation can be helped and what facilities in the local area might be appropriate.

Get Help Today

Contact our dedicated helpline at 0800 111 4108.

[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/630184/20170718_Alcohol_Usage_bulletin__-_O.pdf

[2] https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2021/03/31/ptsd-and-harmful-drinking-in-the-uk-armed-forces-and-uk-police-service/