Veteran Substance Abuse – What You Need to Know

Substance abuse is one of the biggest concerns and issues among Veterans today. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 11% of Veterans (more than one in ten) suffer from Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

Unemployment, homelessness, trauma, and mental and physical disabilities, all are serious challenges familiar to many Veterans. In many cases, alcohol and drugs are a common way to ease the pain and help to temporarily cope with these struggles.

Too many Veterans and their families are unaware that they can be entitled to additional benefits if they manage to prove the link between their substance abuse and military service. Some even think that they will immediately lose all their VA disability rates and compensation if they admit to having problems with alcohol and drugs, which is completely false!

Let’s take a look at the facts about the relationship between VA disability benefits and substance abuse and how substance use disorder can really affect your VA disability rate and qualification for the benefits.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) explained

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SUD is a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications. While substance abuse is usually associated with alcoholism or the use of illegal drugs like  heroin and methamphetamine, prescription drugs make up the majority of drugs misused by Veterans. 

Alcohol is the primary substance for 65% of Veterans suffering from SUD.

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health among Veterans showed that Veterans are more likely to misuse opioids like Vicodin, Norco, Tramadol, Benzodiazepines and other codeine-containing medications.

At the same time, Veterans who misuse prescription drugs are least likely to admit the problem, and therefore, seek qualified help.

Substance abuse is often confused with another similar term – substance misuse, which refers to when a person uses a certain drug knowingly to harm themselves or others. SUD is characterized by the uncontrolled consumption of alcohol and drugs, despite their harmful effects.

It can be difficult to tell if someone or even yourself is starting to have a problem with using alcohol and other substances. However, admitting the problem is the first and the most important step towards seeking help and overcoming the issue. Here are some of the main symptoms of SUD:

  • Craving
    Feeling a strong desire or urge to use the substance.
  • Loss of Control
    Inability to stop using the substance, even when you want to quit.
  • Withdrawal
    Onset of symptoms like nausea, sweating, shaking, or mood swings when not using the substance.
  • Physical Dependence
    Developing tolerance (needing more of the substance to achieve the same effect) and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance.
  • Social Problems
    Substance use often causes issues in relationships, work, or other areas of life.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities
    Prioritizing substance use over important obligations like work, chores, or family responsibilities.
  • Risky Use
    Using the substance in situations where it’s physically dangerous, like driving under the influence (DUI)
  • Inability to Quit
    Being unable to stop using or even cutting down on the substance on your own.

Substance Abuse and Your VA Disability

The main misconception we see about substance abuse and VA disability benefits is that a Veteran will immediately lose their compensation if the VA finds out about SUD. This is not true. The only things that can affect your VA disability benefits are the change (positive or negative) in your medical condition and evidence of fraud.

However, there can be examples when substance use may affect your case and deprive you of your disability compensation or a portion of it:

  1. Willful Misconduct
    If the VA suspects that substance use is a willful misconduct on your part, you will not be able to receive additional benefits for the conditions that develop due to your addiction. The term “willful misconduct” means you took a substance intentionally, knowing about the harm it may cause but not caring about the harmful consequences.

    For example, you were seeking the intoxication, “the buzz” itself, not pain relief. In this case, if you claim SUD as a secondary condition to your chronic back pain, you will not lose the initial VA rate, but also you won’t be able to qualify for the additional compensation for the secondary condition.
  2. Offense Committed under the Influence
    You legally cannot lose your VA disability benefits if you get arrested. However, if you commit a violent misdemeanour or offense related to drug and alcohol use, you will become ineligible for the Work Release Programs.

As for VA benefits for substance abuse itself, here you need to know two things:

Service-connected Substance Abuse

While you cannot get a VA disability rate for substance abuse itself, it is often recognized as a secondary condition to several common service-connected disabilities:

  • Mental Health Disabilities 
    Depression, PTSD, and anxiety are all widespread mental health disabilities among Veterans. They are also often associated with substance abuse. 
  • Chronic Pain and Other Physical Disabilities
    Back and spinal injuries, arthritic as well as traumatic brain injury (TBI), and many other service-connected physical disabilities are often associated with severe chronic pain. Unfortunately, the opioid prescriptions often used in this case lead to addiction among patients.

For SUD to be considered as a secondary condition on your VA disability rate, you’ll need to prove that your addiction developed after you attempted to cope with physical and emotional pain caused by your primary service-connected disability using alcohol, prescription, or illicit drugs.

That is why it is very important to file for the VA disability rate with the help of a knowledgeable VA consultant who will help you collect and present all the necessary documents and evidence, and build a strong case demonstrating a direct link between your primary service-connected disability and SUD.

Filing the VA Disability Claim for Substance Abuse

While filing your claim for substance abuse, you will need to prove that:

  • Substance abuse aggravated the symptoms of your primary service-connected disability, OR
  • Substance abuse leads to the development of another secondary condition

In other words, while you cannot get the VA disability rate for SUD itself, you will need to demonstrate the effect that it has on your ratable conditions.

Here is the evidence you need to collect in this case:

  • Medical records and diagnosis about your primary service-related condition
  • Medical records and diagnosis of SUD
  • Medical Nexus that would establish a strong link between the ratable service-connected disability and your history of substance abuse

Note that the nexus statement needs to establish a timeline for your primary service-connected disability and substance abuse. SUD needs to start after the primary condition –  So, it will be considered as a factor that worsened your primary disability or lead to a new one.

VA Disability Rates for Substance Abuse

Since SUD is not a ratable condition, it’s tough to predict what your exact rate will be after your case is approved.

Your new rating will depend on the condition that developed as a result of alcoholism or drug abuse, how it has worsened your primary condition, and how it all affects your life and ability to work.

In some cases, substance abuse leads to such severe physical and mental health consequences that a Veteran cannot work anymore. It can make them eligible for Total Disability Individual Unemployability (TDIU), which comes with a 100% VA disability rate.

Veterans who file for substance abuse usually get secondary ratings for liver disease, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, and sexual dysfunction. SUD may also lead to depression, psychosis, and anxiety disorders.

For example, if you have PTSD as your primary disability and developed SUD because of this severe mental disorder, the conditions that occur due to alcohol and drugs abuse (such as liver cirrhosis), can be rated as secondary disabilities.

You can use our VA Rate Calculator to estimate your final VA Disability rating. However, remember that each case is analyzed individually, and only an experienced professional who knows all the aspects of your claim can give you precise numbers.

Seeking Help for SUD

SUD is a treatable condition. The sooner you seek professional help after noticing some of these symptoms, the more psychological and medical tools you will have to overcome the issue. 

If you qualify for VA health care, treatment for substance abuse is almost always free or at least very affordable. In case you were granted at least 10% VA disability rate, the outpatient care is always free.

Use the VA Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Program website to find treatment program available in your area.

Here you can receive:

  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Residential or live-in care
  • Continuing care and relapse prevention (making sure you don’t slip back into the same substance use problems)
  • Short-term outpatient counseling
  • Self-help groups
  • Special programs for Veterans with specific concerns (including homeless Veterans)

Here are some other resources where you and your loved ones can get qualified help:

24/7 Veterans Crisis Line 

A 24/7 hotline for Veterans and their families. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA health care or qualify for benefits to connect.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline

Free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service. Available in English and Spanish. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

National Call Center for Homeless Veterans

Here, you can get a consultation from a trained VA counselor about the homeless and health care programs available in your area. +1 877 424 3838

Final Thoughts

For a long time, all sorts of addictions have been stigmatized as a sign of weakness, lack of willpower, or cowardice. However, today, experts agree that substance abuse is a mental health issue no different from any other disability that can develop due to the hardships of military service.

Filing for substance abuse as a secondary condition, you don’t put at risk your disability benefits but claim what is rightfully yours.

Schedule a call with a VCU Veteran Specialist, and we’ll help you cut through myths and misconceptions about substance abuse, and build a strong case so you can receive the benefits your challenges and sacrifice have earned you. 

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