How Family Members Can Support a Clean and Sober Lifestyle for Their Returning Vet

By Anna Ciulla

A loved one who returns home from active military service is often not the same person they once were, having witnessed and experienced traumatic events the likes of which can be hard to fathom. This new reality can be difficult to adjust to—not just for the returning service person but for their immediate family, who naturally wonder how they can help their loved one make a smooth and healthy transition back to civilian life.

In this period of re-acclimating to civilian life, it’s important to keep in mind that returning vets are more vulnerable to substance abuse and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, due to various factors:

  • Chronic or acute pain from one or more war-related injuries
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a treatable mental disorder marked by traumatic memories, flashbacks, panic and insomnia, which occurs at high rates among the veteran population and often can precipitate substance abuse
  • Other co-occurring mental disorders like major depressive disorder and anxiety
  • Troubles reintegrating their experiences in active duty with a return to ordinary family and civilian life
  • Challenges finding new employment and a renewed sense of life purpose

Key Components of a Healthy Lifestyle That a Family Can Encourage

Such challenges are daunting but not insurmountable—especially when a returning vet has a supportive family who understands and encourages key components of a clean and healthy lifestyle. They include the following:

  • A sober living environment — A 2007 study found that a “substantial” number of vets—12 to 15 percent—“endorsed problematic alcohol use” in the three to six months following their return from combat. That estimate is conservative: 39 percent of vets returning from deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan reportedly tested positive for “probable alcohol abuse.” A home that is free of drugs and alcohol is therefore a good precaution that families can take in encouraging their loved one to embrace a clean and healthy lifestyle.
  • A healthy diet — The mental and physical health benefits of eating that adheres to U.S. Dietary Guidelines should not be underestimated. New findings have revealed that a Mediterranean diet can help prevent symptoms of depression, a mental disorder that affects a high rate of returning veterans. (A Mediterranean diet has long been known to improve cardiovascular health.) Similarly, foods that fight inflammation not only reportedly improve your mood and prevent depression, but also can lower the risks of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes.
  • Regular exercise — Exercise is an effective intervention for depression and PTSD, according to research. Even low-intensity exercise or mind-body exercise—gentle yoga, for example—can be therapeutic for those with combat-related injuries, who may not be able to engage in high-intensity fitness. Encourage at least 20 minutes of exercise daily, if possible.
  • Good sleep hygiene — Fatigue is a common trigger for substance abuse, so getting a sufficient amount of sleep is key to staying healthy. Families can encourage a consistent bedtime hour and a daily regimen that promotes good sleep.
  • A peer support group — Returning vets need to know that they are not alone in what they’re going through. Peer support groups are a safe, supportive place where a returning vet can share their experience with other vets with the same struggles. These groups can be especially therapeutic for vets who have experienced combat trauma and those with PTSD.
  • An outlet for study, work and/or service to others — Studies show that people who engage in service and volunteer opportunities tend to be happier and more fulfilled. Returning vets are no different: they need to know that they still have something valuable to contribute to their family, community and nation after their tour of military duty is over. Family members can help their returning vet by encouraging these opportunities for giving back.

Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery, where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.