The Role of Military Culture in Substance Abuse

military culture and substance abuseSubstance abuse and addiction are destructive conditions that affect millions of people in the United States, but our country’s military veterans face even higher rates of substance abuse.

Understanding the link between veterans and substance abuse can help individuals find the care they need to thrive and improve the outcomes for veterans with addiction. This article will explore the connection between military culture and higher rates of substance abuse among veterans.

Reach out to the team at Alamo Behavioral Health now to explore our substance abuse treatment programs for veterans or to find support at any stage of addiction recovery. Our comprehensive programs are designed to meet the unique needs of veterans living with substance abuse.

Exploring the Role of Military Culture in Substance Abuse

Military personnel face unique challenges and stressors during their time in service. Military members live and work under strict rules of order and conduct that help them manage their time, reduce risks, and function optimally in many aspects of their daily lives.

The culture that exists within our nation’s military can keep members safe and united toward a common goal during service. However, the foundations of this culture can also increase a veteran’s risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Here are some of the aspects of military culture that mental health experts believe may contribute to higher rates of substance abuse.


Military personnel often come to identify themselves as part of a broad group of capable, dependable people. Unit members spend a lot of time together and must depend on each other in situations where lives may be at risk.

The camaraderie that develops among military members is essential. Instead of each person identifying as an individual, people learn to identify as a group. Teamwork can keep people safe, help accomplish goals, and create a sense of community. The relationships military personnel develop during and after service can be meaningful and valuable, especially in stressful situations like training, deployment, and combat.

But this camaraderie can also prevent people from admitting that they need help for substance abuse or addiction, as well as other mental health problems. Veterans may believe they’re letting down their unit or country by admitting they need help.

A “tough it out” mentality

Military service can test people’s grit, strength, and resolve. People who serve work to become the strongest and most resilient versions of themselves to serve their country to the fullest extent.

Veterans often retain many of the values they learned during their service, including organization, order, and resilience. These qualities can help military personnel remain safe and contribute to the overall mission or goals.

But in some cases, veterans can struggle with asking for help. They may believe that they have to “tough it out” or suffer in silence, even as substance abuse or mental health conditions begin to take control of their lives.

During service, a military’s ability to persevere during challenges and suppress personal pain can be life-saving or help them fit into the military’s culture. Veterans who struggle with substance abuse and mental health challenges may find that these qualities are actually a barrier between them and the help they need.

Military Culture

Military members operate on a highly structured schedule with strict rules and regulations around most aspects of their lives during service. Veterans may struggle to reintegrate into society after leaving the community, structure, and culture of the military. They may feel overwhelmed by things like:

  • Finding work
  • Joining a community
  • Changing roles in their family or community
  • Having choices about where to live, what to wear, how to spend free time, etc.

Veterans often require significant ongoing support before, during, and after reintegration–and many do not receive it. This puts veterans at higher risk for chronic stress, mental health challenges, and substance abuse.

What Other Factors Contribute to Substance Abuse Among Veterans?

The military’s culture can contribute to higher rates of substance abuse among veterans. Other factors may increase the risk of substance use and addiction. Here are some of the most significant factors.

Stress and trauma

Many veterans face intense pressure and stressors at every stage of their service, and many develop trauma as a result of situations related to their service. Veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to use substances to self-medicate than those who do not. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction.


Veterans are more likely to live with severe or chronic pain than the general population. More than 1.8 million veterans who served post-9/11 have some form of disability, including loss of limbs, hearing or sight loss, brain and spinal cord injuries, and paralysis. Many receive prescription opioid painkillers to manage pain, which may lead to drug abuse or addiction.

Mental health challenges

Many veterans may not seek treatment for mental illness for the same reasons they do not seek addiction treatment. A “tough it out” mentality and fear of stigmatization may keep people from asking for help when they need it. Veterans often also face a lack of mental health resources in their communities, homelessness, or other significant barriers between them and the help they need.

Our nation’s heroes deserve comprehensive, accessible care for substance use disorders and mental health. Understanding the connection between aspects of military culture and substance abuse is the first step toward helping veterans get the help they need–but more action is required.

Find Veterans Substance Abuse Treatment

If you or a veteran you love needs treatment for substance abuse or addiction, you are not alone. Contact the specialists at Alamo Behavioral Health now to learn about our substance use disorder treatment programs designed to meet the unique needs of our nation’s veterans. Reach out today to take the first step toward the help you need.

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