August 22, 2016
The battle against veteran addiction is ongoing, but the perspective has changed. Back in 2013, when the Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI) launched, the understanding of the prescription painkiller epidemic among soldiers was that if opioids were the cause, then opioids were the problem. And if opioids were the problem, then the solution was to get rid of them.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would soon realize this was not the answer.
According to data from the VA, on an average basis, about 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Reasons behind these tragedies include mental illness, chronic pain, overdose, and feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Though the OSI achieved better numbers in reducing opioid prescriptions to active military and veteran patients, transitions into heroin addiction, homelessness, and suicide would increase. By 2015, it was clear that methods needed adjustments.
Still a process with kinks to be fixed, the VA began implementing more complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) programs in VA clinics across the nation while veteran nonprofit organizations set foot to spread awareness on veteran addiction, mental illness, and suicide via social media platforms. From Yoga Warriors International to the “22 Push-Up Challenge,” more hands and ideas were being reached out to veterans looking for hope toward recovery. If the answer was more natural pain relief techniques and community support for veterans, then the goal was to gain as much attention for the nation’s soldiers in need.
Veterans Encouraged to Seek Alternative Therapies
In 2014, the VA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a five-year initiative worth $21.7 million to study the effectiveness of CAM therapies to opioids. The initiative would consist of 13 research projects, ranging from studies on “bright morning light treatment” to expanding techniques in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
As it stands, limited evidence exists in VA data to suggest CAM as an effective treatment for PTSD and other mental illnesses, but as studies continue to get published, so does the evidence continue to grow. Numerous beneficial effects have occurred in veteran patients’ treatment, warranting a viable reason to incorporate CAM approaches alongside traditional medicinal treatment.
Because PTSD and its related mental disorders, such as major depression and chronic anxiety, seem to be the cause of many underlying issues for veteran soldiers, it became the focus of the effectiveness of alternative medicine. Veterans with PTSD were prone to abusing prescription painkillers and falling into addiction cycles, having been conditioned to resolve their issues with pills instead of practicing CAM techniques.
As alternative therapy group programs gradually implement themselves in VA clinics, the results are showing promise. Dropout rates are next to zero as compared to traditional talk therapy, which has an approximate 20 percent dropout rate. Whereas opioid prescriptions don’t require any conversation, talk therapy may require too much for veterans’ comfort zones. Having to relive painful past experiences by talking about them is not always the best method for veterans with PTSD and can serve as too much of a damaging trigger than a cathartic process.
As such, veterans are encouraged to pursue the now—through practices like yoga, mindfulness, and other holistic techniques that allow them to manage their thoughts through challenging moments. The only question some veterans have is: how is sitting in a room with other people on a yoga mat going to help a soldier who’s been through war?
Karen Soltes, LCSW, MAED, E-RYT, founding partner of Warriors at Ease, which provides yoga and meditation teachers to military communities to help soldiers with their mental health, explains that people with PTSD have uniquely different concerns and that no single approach can serve as a general prescription for each veteran. For yoga and meditation to be truly effective, they must be tailored specifically to the needs of the veteran with PSTD.
In an article with Social Work Today, Soltes explains:
“For example, creating a sense of a safe space is essential for people who have had trauma. And what might feel good to some of us, such as soft lighting, might not work for someone with trauma. People with PTSD may not want to have their back to a door and may need to know what’s in every cabinet before they can relax,” Soltes says. They may not be comfortable closing their eyes in a group of relative strangers or with physical adjustments by the teacher, she adds. “Coming up behind someone when they are in a pose may create more vigilance.”
(“Treatments for Veterans with PTSD – Outside the Traditional Toolbox.” Social Work Today.)
CAM programs tailored to veteran needs, preferably created by veterans, have shown significant results in helping soldiers conquer their mental battles, veteran addiction, and opportunities to getting their lives back.
Nonprofits, Social Media Spread Awareness on Veteran Addiction
What remains an issue, however, is the lack of availability. While several nonprofit organizations specific to veteran issues have sprung up to assist soldiers with CAM and assimilating back into the civilian world, there aren’t enough spots to treat every veteran in need.
Gradually, alternative therapies are being brought to VA medical centers across the country, but the funding is slow, and the seats are limited—but there is variety, at least.
Yoga Warriors International is the first and largest program in the United States that aims to heal combat veterans through yoga and meditation. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGLA) provides veterans with equine therapy, where patients spend time taking care of and riding horses as a means of addressing their traumas. The Fellowship House on the campus of the Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill, Conn., houses 40 alcohol and/or drug-addicted veterans and provides intense treatment for each client for as short as six months to as long as three years.
The list goes on, but for every nonprofit that helps a dozen veterans, there are thousands of men and women who find it difficult getting any help at all and thus find themselves running into the law when they make bad decisions.
Judge Robert Russell of Buffalo, NY, noticed a trend of veterans showing up on his docket with substance abuse and mental health problems in 2007. He acknowledged a disconnect between himself and veterans and realized in order to see any significant progress in court, veterans would need to be in the comfort of other veterans. This brought on the creation of veterans treatment courts, a combination of drug and mental health courts that focuses on military veterans with substance abuse problems, such as opioid and heroin addiction.
Over eight years, veterans courts would spring up across the nation to help provide representatives and military mentors to all veterans in need of mental health and addiction services. While the courts are still in an ongoing introduction to the states (not all states have a court available to veterans), the transition from sending veterans to prison to helping veterans with mental health and addiction issues instead is steadily increasing.
Recently in 2016, the latest social media PSA meme has been aimed at spreading awareness of veterans’ mental health issues, and by extension, addiction. Known as the “22 Pushup Challenge” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other video-friendly social media platforms, the trend reminds people of the tragic rate of suicide among veteran communities: 22 soldiers per day.
The #22PushupChallenge was created by veteran empowerment group Honor Courage Commitment and was spotlighted once celebrity participation set foot on the internet. The goal is simple: the more people know about the ongoing issues within the military community, including veteran addiction and suicide, then the more people can take action to provide better funding to veteran healthcare from the VA.
The answers on how to stop veteran addiction and suicide are still to be discovered, but one thing is certain. Lending out a hand to a soldier that feels abandoned in the world is enough help to give them courage to keep living. Veterans struggle to overcome mental challenges caused by war, addiction, and suffering, but if the community reminds them they’re not alone, then there remains hope for veterans to march toward recovery and win their greatest battle yet.
This concludes our four-part Veteran Addiction series, but in case you just arrived on the scene, you can start the series from the beginning and learn how opioid addiction began in the military.
Read more from this series:
Part 1 – “Veteran Addiction: The Military’s Struggle in US Epidemic”
Part 2 – “Veteran Addiction: The Fight Against Opiate Addiction”
Part 3 – “Veteran Addiction: How Soldiers Lose the Mental Battle”
Part 4 – “Veteran Addiction: Hope for New Beginnings and Recovery”
At Ocean Breeze Recovery, we believe all clients should feel as comfortable as possible throughout their treatment process. Clients will enter a no-judgment environment with trained staff ready to assist you toward recovery immediately. If you, or a loved one, are currently battling an addiction, you can call some of our treatment specialists, who are available 24-7, at (844) 318-0070 and discover new opportunities to a better life.