If you’re a fan of Johnny Cash, you may have heard the song, ”The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Ira Hayes was an indigenous American Veteran who became famous after he helped to hoist the American flag over Iwo Jima, Japan, during World War II. Hayes was celebrated as a war hero when he returned home to America but soon developed some self-destructive habits that reportedly led to his death. It has been speculated that Ira had developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his military service and that he began drinking as a way to cope with the horrible memories of warfare.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we treat a lot of people, including Veterans, whose PTSD has led to them misusing substances. We customize our patients’ treatment plans to fit each individual and their needs, and we offer services specifically designed for Veterans through our Tactical Recovery program.

PTSD Symptoms in Veterans

When a particularly dangerous, painful, or frightening experience overwhelms a person’s ability to cope, this is called a trauma. Not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD, but if you or a loved one have experienced three or more of the symptoms below in the last month, it is a good idea to reach out for help and a potential diagnosis:

  • Nightmares about the event or intrusive thoughts about what occurred
  • Trying to avoid thinking about what happened, possibly even avoiding people or places that trigger memories
  • Being easily startled or constantly on the lookout for danger
  • Feeling numb or detached from people or events happening around you
  • Blaming yourself for the traumatic event or results of the event

Veterans PTSD and Substance Use Disorder

When two diagnoses are present in the same person, they are said to be co-occurring or co-morbid conditions. PTSD and substance use disorder (SUD) are two conditions that are frequently found together. More than 46 percent of people with PTSD also struggle with SUD. Around 63 percent of recent Veterans in one study who were diagnosed with SUD also suffered from PTSD. Many people who have experienced both of these struggles have indicated that they were attempting to self-medicate their PTSD with alcohol or other drugs.

Outcomes from Co-Occurring PTSD and SUD

When aperson experiences SUD and PTSD simultaneously, it becomes much harder for them to recover, their treatment is more complicated and costly, and they have a greater risk for a variety of poor outcomes, which can include:

  • Chronic physical health conditions
  • Poor social functioning
  • High rates of suicide attempts
  • Legal problems
  • Violence
  • Poor adherence to the treatment they receive

For this reason, it is generally recommended that people with comorbid PTSD and SUD receive treatment simultaneously for both conditions. If one diagnosis is left untreated, it can hold back recovery gains for the other. In addition, if a person struggles with chronic pain, this also needs to be addressed in their treatment. 

Veteran Focused: Treatment Tailored to Veterans

Because Veterans often struggle with all three of these issues and have lived experiences that are different from civilians with similar diagnoses, they may benefit from treatment strategies that have been tailored to their experiences and needs. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we are proud to offer Tactical Recovery, a program created especially for Veterans. Tactical Recovery is:

  • A 45-day residential treatment program 
  • PsychArmor Certified
  • Intentionally staffed with Veterans and people in long-term recovery 
  • Built to include family and other support people in a Veteran’s life
  • Collaborative with the VA and other Veteran support services
  • Able to offer a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) for day treatment

Veterans Suicide Prevention

It is important to take any indication seriously that a person is contemplating suicide. Because people with co-occurring PTSD and SUD are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts, their loved ones should know the indicators of suicide risk:

  • Words 
    • “I wish I was dead.”
    • “I should kill myself.”
    • “I am a burden on everyone around me.”
    • “Everyone would be better off if I was dead.”
  • Feelings
    • Guilt/shame
    • Hopelessness/helplessness
    • Emptiness
    • Being trapped
    • Sadness
    • Anxiety
    • Agitation/Rage
  • Behavior
    • Researching ways to die and making a plan
    • Saying goodbye like it’s the last time they will see people
    • Wrapping up loose ends by giving away cherished possessions, making a will, etc.
    • Engaging in risky behavior like unsafe driving
    • Increased substance use
    • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
    • Extreme mood swings

If you see these types of behaviors, it is important to ask the person if they are considering ending their life and to connect them to support right away. If it seems like the person is in immediate danger, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

Additional Resources for Veterans

If you or someone you know is a Veteran who needs immediate support, there are several hotlines you can utilize right now:

The Veteran’s Crisis Line/Suicide Lifeline – Call 988 and press 1 or text 838255

Stop Soldier Suicide – 844-317-1136

Combat Trauma Helpline – 877-717-7873

At Safe Harbor, we are grateful to the men and women who have served our country and proud to support them. If you have questions about our services or the Tactical Recovery program, we are happy to assist you.