Substance use disorder, sometimes called “addiction,” is common. Most people know someone who has been affected by it. But even though it is common, it is often misunderstood. In honor of International Recovery Day Sept. 30, VA wants Veterans to know that there are a number of proven therapies and medications to help treat substance use disorder.

What’s most important to know is that substance use disorder is a disease that can be treated. As with other medical conditions, VA has a variety of proven therapies and medications to help support Veterans who have been diagnosed with substance use disorder. If you had diabetes or high blood pressure, you would go see your provider for treatment. Treating substance use disorders is no different.

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder causes people to have difficulty managing their use of alcohol, drugs and other substances, including nicotine, prescribed opioids and marijuana. Some Veterans use alcohol or drugs as an unhealthy way to cope with unpleasant emotions like stress, anxiety or depression. Not everyone who drinks or takes drugs ends up with a substance use disorder, but for some, it can be a slippery slope — particularly for those facing other challenges, including mental health concerns or life stressors. Substance use disorder can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, affecting judgment, decision-making, learning, memory and behavior control. These changes can also result in intense cravings and changes in personality.

If you are concerned, depressed or anxious about your alcohol or drug use (or that of a Veteran you care about), or if you notice any of these common signs of a potential substance use disorder, speak with a VA provider:

  • Increased urge to use alcohol or drugs.
  • Inability to stop using alcohol or drugs, despite negative consequences.
  • Changes in relationships due to alcohol or drug use.
  • Sickness or withdrawal symptoms when alcohol or drug use stops.
  • Needing to use more alcohol or drugs over time.

If you or a Veteran you care about is facing a drug or alcohol problem, VA has many proven treatments that can help.

What support is available at VA?

Everyone’s recovery journey is unique. VA offers a variety of treatment options that can be tailored to fit individual needs, preferences and situations. These include evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and contingency management. These treatments can help Veterans develop skills and strategies to reduce their substance use and address urges, cravings and problems related to substance use.

Substance use disorder is a chronic disease that can often be treated with medicines to help control alcohol and drug use, reduce cravings, prevent relapse and, ultimately, reduce the risk of death from substance use disorder. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States and opioid overdose deaths are preventable with naloxone. VA has made naloxone available for free to VA patients who need it.

If alcohol or drug use is negatively affecting your life, take the next step by exploring what VA has to offer. If alcohol or drugs are affecting the life of a Veteran you care about, calling Coaching Into Care (888-823-7458) can empower you to have effective conversations with them about seeking treatment.


If you see someone who is showing symptoms of overdose or who is in immediate danger, dial 911.

By Elizabeth Oliva, Ph.D., is the VA National OEND coordinator for the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System. Joseph Liberto, M.D., is the National Mental Health Director, Substance Use Disorders.

Share this story

Published on Sep. 30, 2021

Estimated reading time is 3.3 min.

Views to date: 305

More Stories

  • More than 821,000 Veterans who want the convenience of an easy app on their smartphones are downloading VA’s Health and Benefits mobile app.

  • PTSD Bytes: Host Pearl McGee-Vincent discusses PTSD and relationships with Dr. Leslie Morland and Dr. Kayla Knopp, clinical and research psychologists.

  • Clinical simulation training has expanded rapidly and nearly any clinical scenario can be created and taught. Orlando VA trains of hundreds of professionals in their labs.