A Vet’s View: Drugs pose challenge after return to civilian life

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My wife Lynn and I attended a June 14 workshop on “Mental Health Issues Confronting our Long Island Veterans” at the Nassau County Bar Association office in Mineola. Presenters Aynisa Leonardo of the Long Island Center for Recovery in Hampton Bays and Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, each spent an hour in rapid-fire presentations for about two dozen clinicians and advocates.

Leonardo blamed gaps in the transition from military life for the fact that some veterans can develop unhealthy habits. She said out-processing is minimal and superficial, and veterans eager to return to civilian life fail to report mental problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions.

“The military hasn’t set up a situation where you can freely discuss things with them,” Leonardo said. “Not enough people are being diagnosed, so many people go through life without diagnoses.”

She said the media, friends and neighbors have an erroneous picture of veterans; few leave the service feeling they are heroes. “The system is set up with labels and characterizations,” Leonardo said. Every veteran has a different story, she said, and one size does not fit all. “See the person, not the label.”

Veterans use drugs and alcohol to forget unpleasant experiences, numb the pain of physical injuries, reduce family pressure, get to sleep, and dispel feelings of failure. They bemoan the loss of camaraderie and the adrenaline rush of combat.

And so veterans isolate themselves, have mood swings, anxiety, low enthusiasm, disturbed sleep, are unpredictable, cannot concentrate, etc. “The idea of treatment can be intimidating,” Leonardo said, “and then there’s the stigma of getting a diagnosis… Drugs can be an escape, a distraction… provide temporary peace. Taking one pill is better than an hour of yoga.”

The first question a clinician should ask any adult patient, Leonardo said, is “Did you serve in the armed services?” Veterans seeking counseling without disclosing their service is a major problem, she said. Some may have invisible wounds, may be grieving for a friend killed or wounded in combat, may have been exposed to a toxic substance or may have gotten a bad conduct discharge that prohibits them from accessing counseling through the Veterans Administration. Some may have suffered moral injury, having committed an act or failing report an act that goes against their moral code.

Veterans struggle with survivor’s guilt and feelings of weakness, and sometimes spend years second-guessing themselves. These feelings can lead to depression, moral dislocation, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and, finally, suicide. The Long Island Center for Recovery (800-344-5427; LongIslandCenterRecovery.com), is a 50-bed inpatient detox and rehabilitation facility founded in 1995. It uses 12-step study groups, one-on-one therapy, writing workshops, meditation, yoga, aroma therapy, art therapy, fire pit ceremonies and other alternative treatments and approaches. It has a gym and workout area and runs AA and NA meetings nightly.

In the narrative sessions, Leonardo said, “Patients create stories around their trauma in order to process them and reframe them.” The idea, she said, is to try to carry the experience with them rather than constantly relive it. Contact Leonardo at Aleonardo@LongIslandRecovery.com

Chassman, a licensed clinical social worker, said that when a veteran arrives home, everybody wants to “buy ‘em a beer” or introduce him or her to marijuana, pills or other drugs. Some veterans, he said, are prescribed opiates for war injuries and become addicted. He said opiates killed 2,000 Long Islanders in 2018 but added that half of substance abuse (hospital) admissions among veterans aged 21 to 39 involve alcohol as the primary drug involved.

He discussed use of inhalants, amphetamines, marijuana, cocaine and heroin, which he said can set the stage for suicide by lowering inhibitions. The signs of alcohol addiction are lethargy, drowsiness, reduced vision, perspiration, shaking, vomiting, chills, nodding, shallow breathing.

“Crack cocaine takes you to the moon and leaves you there with no cab fare home,” Chassman said. “Cocaine is back across all demographics. Interventions are the key. We’ve got to do a better job providing a safety net, outreaching veterans.”

Chassman said veterans use drugs and alcohol because “we all want to feel better — physiologically and psychologically.” He said most HMOs will not pay for treatment for heroin addiction because heroin use is illegal. “Insurance companies say it’s not a medical necessity.” He said use of alcohol is legal, and if alcoholism results in tremors or other symptoms, insurance companies will pay for treatment.

Chassman bemoans the legalization of marijuana and said “legalization is geared to young adults.” He said some mood-altering drugs can be useful but only in conjunction with therapy. Whether they are battling addictions or not, Chassman said, veterans are a fragile group.

“Thirty percent of Afghanistan vets say they have considered suicide,” he said. “Don’t dance around it. You have to ask, ‘Have you ever thought about committing suicide?’”

For more information about LICADD, call its Westbury office at 516-747-2606 or email schassman@licadd.org

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