Substance abuse may keep veterans from seeking mental health help, report shows

Elizabeth Howe
July 22, 2020 - 2:46 pm
Substance Use Disorder

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If a treatment program requires abstinence from substances, it might be inadvertently turning veterans in need away, according to a new study.

The study from the RAND corporation found that the veteran population has a high comorbidity rate of mental health disorders and substance use disorders -- meaning if a veteran has one of those disorders it’s significantly likely that they have the other as well. This is particularly true of individuals who have served in the era since September 11, 2001. And the RAND research showed that treating both of these disorders concurrently is far more effective than attempting to treat them separately. 

However, the same study showed that treatment programs that require abstinence from substances “pose a significant barrier to veterans with SUDs and co-occurring mental health disorders.” For many veterans, the thought of facing one disorder while giving up the substance they may use to mitigate the symptoms of those disorders is an intimidating challenge. 

According to RAND’s research, in conjunction with the Wounded Warrior Project, the programs needed are available -- WWP found that its members are on average within a 60-minute drive to the nearest facility that offers specialized treatments for co-occurring disorders. The problem is getting veterans to participate in those programs.

RAND recommended that treatment programs move to “incorporate and accommodate veterans' treatment preferences into treatment decisions” and “implement policies to decrease barriers to accessing care.”

Implementing these recommendations, and others outlined in the report, will be no small feat, RAND concedes. 

“Implementing these recommendations will require policymakers, payors, and veteran advocates to work collaboratively to ensure that appropriate standards, provider training opportunities, and payment incentives are aligned to improve the adoption of such approaches and the quality of care provided to veterans across treatment facilities,” the report reads. 

“We must continue the work to meet the mental health needs of post-9/11 veterans,” said Mike Richardson, Wounded Warrior Project's vice president of mental health. “This important research will help us support veterans by supporting programs that can help those suffering from both substance use disorders and mental health challenges.”

Read the full report here.

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Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.

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