Last week, we celebrated Veterans Day, a day dedicated to honoring the millions of military veterans that have served our country. Despite the bravery and courage ingrained in these individuals, veterans are not spared from the effects of the opioid epidemic. In fact, a 2011 study shows that veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental overdose on opioids than non-veterans. Why are these individuals disproportionately affected by opioid abuse, and how can we help those who have served our country?
The emotional and physical costs of serving in the military often result in chronic pain and mental health complications. Because opioids are an easy way to address chronic pain, veterans are often prescribed long-term opioid therapy, leading to opioid dependence. In addition to the obvious physical pain associated with combat, many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other mental health complications. These mental health complications make veterans vulnerable to substance abuse. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with seeking help is even stronger in the veteran community, as veterans often maintain the mindset of being “Army Strong” and often do not ask for necessary help.
Veterans Affairs is taking steps to address the opioid epidemic within their community. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is introducing more non-drug therapies for pain such as acupuncture, physical therapy, and meditation. When opioid use is proposed, providers follow the guidelines in the Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI). OSI is an evidence-based toolkit created by the VHA that explains the relationships between care options and health outcomes, including the considerations attached to long-term opioid therapy. This effort has lowered opioid prescriptions in the VHA by 16 percent.
Despite the advancements being made by the VHA, veterans are still disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic. During this time of reflection and honor, we must face the unavoidable question: How can we better protect those who have protected us?