Substance use disorders and mental health problems impact countless veterans. Unfortunately, too many slip through the cracks and never get help. While there are many reasons for this, it is often a lack of early intervention, stigma with addiction, and, in some cases, inadequate drug education.

However, early intervention is vital, with the best approaches being conversations and even drug education. While it is challenging to know how many veterans have substance use disorders and mental health problems, it’s safe to say there are many struggling in silence. Yet, we can reach those close to us and those in the community.

According to census data, in 2022, 7.50% of the adult population in North Carolina were considered veterans. Many of these veterans are affected by factors related to substance use, such as pain, suicide risk, homelessness, and trauma. Per the National Survey for Drug Use and Health, 3.6 million veterans had a past year substance use disorder in the United States.

Alcohol use disorders, for example, are a common problem and often the catalyst for most addictions. However, according to drug abuse statistics, North Carolina has a low rate of alcohol-related deaths per capita. Approximately 15.8% of adults in the state 18 and older binge drink at least once per month. An average of 4,452 deaths annually occur in the state because of excessive alcohol use.

Veterans ages 18 to 49 were the most likely to struggle with addiction across the country. Yet, few veterans seek treatment. An estimated 2.7 million veterans, or 95.4% of the 3.6 million, did not perceive a need for substance use treatment, and only 0.3% sought drug rehab per national data.

Start the conversation by talking to a veteran about substance use and prevention. Do not avoid these conversations; they could be the turning point that convinces them to get help. It is challenging for anyone to open up about their struggles, but this simple act of having a conversation could be a critical moment for a loved one, friend, or acquaintance.

For instance, when you begin the conversation, focus on sharing your feelings. Tell them you have noticed they have been drinking more than usual and wondering if everything is okay. You could also tell them you have noticed they have been acting differently and have not seemed like themselves. Make a point of checking in with them, calling them, inviting them out, or visiting them.

Once you’ve begun the conversation, ask questions such as when they first started feeling this, did something happen that made them feel like this, whether they have been using drugs or alcohol to cope with negative feelings, and whether they have thought about getting help or searching for support.

During these conversations, it is critical to listen without judgment, be supportive, and not come across as disappointed. If you feel there is a concern, contact the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 and then press 1. Other professional resources include SAMHSA and the Veterans Affairs Resource Locator.

This practical approach can help support our veterans who are struggling. Early intervention remains a critical part of helping anyone battling addiction and mental health problems.

Michael Leach has spent most of his career as a healthcare professional specializing in substance use & addiction recovery. He is a certified clinical medical assistant (CCMA) and the Public Relations Officer at Drug Rehab Services.