The U.S. continues to be plagued by the opioid epidemic as new threats like fentanyl spread throughout the country. This has put the nation’s veterans at the frontlines of a new type of war.
Chelsea Simoni, a clinical nurse researcher and founder of Hunterseven Foundation, stated that she has seen many post-9/11 veterans become addicted due to their mental health. “I have coded many young veterans post-9/11 in the ERs for opiate addiction. Addiction has led to mental health crises.
For years, substance abuse among active-duty military veterans is a problem policymakers have tried to address. This is largely because service members are one of the most vulnerable groups in the country due to the stress they experience in their military service. A Department of Veterans Affairs study found that 20% of post-traumatic stress disorder veterans also suffer from drug and alcohol abuse.
Military personnel are more likely to sustain physical injuries in the course of their duties. This often results in troops being prescribed addictive painkillers.
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Simoni stated, “I can personally speak for myself after a severe back injury during my Army service.” “I received over 300 Percocet pre-op and post-op liquid Percocet.
Simoni described how her injuries and pain caused her to become isolated, leading to a battle for depression. Simoni then turned to the prescribed drugs to find relief.
“I didn’t measure the Percocet liquid. It made me feel great. She said it cured anxiety and the thoughts of depression. “I used it for several weeks until I became depressed and blacked out. It was hard to get rid of Percocet because I loved the way it made me feel. But… But…
Simoni witnessed a similar scenario with her brother. He was wounded in combat and suffered multiple injuries after serving with The Marines.
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She recalled that Vicodin was prescribed to him after he suffered a serious back injury. The use spiraled outof control. He was on active duty at one time and would purchase Fentanyl patches…he would then scrape and snort the patches. He was soon discharged from Marine Corps.
Simoni’s brother battled heroin abuse, which eventually led to “full-blown heroin addiction”, leading to overdose and hospitalization.
Simoni visited her brother at the hospital every day and reported that his addiction problems have improved but that he still has mental health concerns.
Many veterans have similar stories. A study published in the National Library of Medicine this year found that the rate of drug overdose deaths among veterans has increased by 53% between 2010 and 2019.
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Multiple factors contributed to the military’s vulnerability to substance abuse were identified in the study, including psychological, social, and physiological factors, as well as liberal opioid prescribing.
To combat this problem, policymakers have taken a variety of measures. These include reforms to the prescribing of opioid painkillers and limiting their distribution. These measures have also had negative consequences.
“These supply-side measures may have inadvertently raised the risk of more risky forms of opioid abuse among veterans (and other veterans), as some veterans turned towards diverted POs and heroin to manage pain and stave of opioid withdrawal,” the study states. “In this context shifting policies and market conditions that restricted access to POs, some vets turned to other, more risky sources of opioids for pain management when they couldn’t get opioid pain medication from the healthcare provider.”
This reality has made veterans more vulnerable, especially with the increase in fentanyl use, which is a highly-dangerous opioid and can cause death in small amounts. The VA released research that showed that fenatnyl-related deaths rose in 2015. They were the most common cause of overdose deaths.
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A major obstacle to combating the epidemic in the military community is the recent rise in fentanyl availability. This has often led to isolation of the service members from their usual support systems during rehabilitation from injuries and after they have left military service.
Simoni stated that “We spend our entire lives relying upon others.” Simoni said that being’removed from that tribe and not having that support is such an cultural shock. It was a difficult one. “We no longer feel that rush of serotonin and dopamine.”
Despite increased attention to the alarming statistics, the National Library of Medicine study highlighted that the problem continues to grow. It noted that overdose deaths have reached their highest level ever in 2020-2021.
The authors claim that the current measures have been limited in the availability of prescription opioids for veterans.
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The authors state that a review of epidemiological and research findings has shown that veterans are more vulnerable to opioid-related overdose than just long-term opioid pain management.
The unique circumstances of veterans should be given more attention. Instead, the authors recommend a more holistic approach to understanding a population with significant differences from other populations that are affected by drug abuse disorders.
The author stated that veterans’ drug-related issues, including overdose risk, need to be understood in light their unique and changing life circumstances and situations. These are the result of ongoing interactions across psychological, social, and structural domains. “Pain management needs must be understood alongside the larger complex of issues veterans face over the civilian/military/veteran career, acknowledging the physiological, psychological, social and structural factors at play.”