Last updated: October 19, 2020
If, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell,” hundreds of thousands of veterans are learning VA treatment for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can lead to an entirely new kind of hell, namely, opiate addiction. The fact is, Veteran Administration doctors currently treating more than 650,000 veterans with highly addictive opioid painkillers are creating a generation of addicts in the process.
The cycle of addiction often begins before discharge, as active-duty service members are treated for combat-related injuries and physical damage caused by packing heavy equipment during multiple deployments. These sobering facts indicate just how critical the situation has become:
- Abuse of prescription painkillers is higher among service members than civilians, and it’s rising.
- The number of painkiller prescriptions written by military doctors has quadrupled in recent years to 3.8 million.
- Almost one-third of Army suicides recorded in 2009 involved prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, the veteran who manages to escape addiction in the field may well fall prey to it when he/she comes home. Nobody knows the exact number of Iraq or Afghanistan vets suffering from chronic pain or PTSD, but the VA says PTSD afflicts 30 percent of its patients. Half of those vets are also dealing with chronic pain.
For doctors trying to serve an rapidly growing population of returning veterans, prescribing pills frequently offers a quick and easy fix. Opioid painkillers do, in fact, take away pain. But they’re also highly addictive; some individuals become addicted after only one prescription. This becomes even more of a concern for eterans with mental health issues. They’re prescribed painkillers twice as often and at the highest doses, despite the fact that PTSD leaves them even more vulnerable to addiction.
Because opioid painkillers work on both mental and physical pain, veterans struggling to deal with chronic pain, depression, or PTSD often find themselves unable to function without the drugs. Worse yet, because the drugs are so powerful, becoming tolerant to the drug means having to increase their dosage in order to get the same level of relief or the emotional cushion they need to get through the day.
But in a kind of terrible irony, the prescription painkillers addicted vets rely on to ease their pain can and do lead to an increased risk of suicide. Their use has also led to a rate of accidental overdose twice that of the civilian population.
Finally, some doctors call prescription opiates “heroin lite,” because these addictions often introduce users to harder drugs. When vets can’t get prescriptions to support their habits, or can’t afford to buy the pills illegally, they frequently turn to more accessible and affordable drugs like meth or heroine to achieve similar results—an alarming trend and a growing problem. Hard evidence indicates the dramatic increase in painkiller prescriptions has led to a dramatic increase in heroine abuse among veterans. This vicious downward spiral has been linked to a number of other problems, including veteran unemployment and homelessness.
The disturbing truth is this: last year the VA treated more than 50,000 vets for opioid abuse. Those are just the reported cases. Considering the fact that the number of opioid prescriptions the VA handed out increased 287 percent between 1999 and 2002, it seems probable VA doctors are at least partially responsible for causing the very abuse they now find themselves treating.
The Veterans Administration has done a shitty job of taking care of our veterans in general, but I am particularly appalled at their pharmaceutical approach to everything.
There are so many treatments that are far more effective at treating things like PTSD, TBI, and chronic pain—with zero side effects, but since they can get a patient in and out in about 15 minutes by just writing a prescription for opiate pain killers, SSRIs, benzos, and other narcotics, they see it as a better and cheaper option. The fact that our veterans who have already sacrificed everything are becoming addicted to these “medications”and committing suicide because of the side effects, is apparently an acceptable outcome in the VA’s eyes.
We’re losing 22 veterans every single day because the people at the Veterans Administration are so lazy and unappreciative that they would rather scribble out a prescription than actually treat their patients.
—Jeremy Knauff, USMC Veteran & Founder of Spartan Media
There are some steps being taken to address the problem. The Veterans Administration established an opioid safety program (the OSI), the Pentagon is starting to track abuse of painkillers, and new treatment methods are being explored—including new medications, but also acupuncture and aqua therapy.
One hopeful report by USAMDT notes that a scientific study may finally determine a safer and more effective treatment. Government approval for a PTSD study involving medical marijuana has been slow, but steady. Progress is still slow and no start date or expected time-table for results has been set.
Along with pre-existing behavioral therapy programs, a new awareness of the growing problems of painkillers may stem the tide, but until painkillers are no longer the first method of treating mental health in the military, some veterans will have to continue to fight that “hellish war” within themselves.