Dr. Devon Cummings, supervisory psychologist for the Substance Use Disorders program at Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, NY, cited a February 2018 report from the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
The report stated half of individuals experiencing a mental illness had a substance use disorder. Cummings further stated from a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey (2014) that mental health disorders correspond with substance use disorders.
“20 million adults with substance use disorders, 30 percent also had a mental disorder,” Cummings said. “Any mental illness or significant mental disorder severely impacts lives.”
“This may indicate a coping mechanism,” she said. “Among veterans, I serve a lot of them with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) from combat who, if left untreated, their coping mechanism is alcohol or marijuana.”
Cummings pondered whether anxiety or depression is separate from or the result of substance use.
“For many people, their start with substance use began when they took pain medications for surgery or an injury, and it developed on a dependence on medications that morphed into an addiction,” Cummings said.
Pain may develop into anxiety when one issue – work stress, family stress – snowballs into several, according to Cummings.
“Factor in genetics, all combined can create the conditions for a co-occurring disorder,” Cumming said.
Cummings said the current epidemic in opiate use is alarming, saying that from more than 64,000 people who overdosed in 2013, more than half were from opioids. She predicts the number of addicts could decrease if more drug courts orders them into treatment programs rather than sentencing them to incarceration.
The Stratton VA Medical Center offers a six-week housing and mentoring program called the Substance Abuse and Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (SARP) for veterans struggling with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. This program offers peer support and family support groups for veterans struggling with a co-occurring disorder of a mental disorder and substance use.
It originally began as a five-week program, but Cummings discovered veterans needing more time before discharging them from SARP.
“If they need to leave sooner, we may discharge them after only 21 or 28 days,” she said.
Cummings said if they need treatment after six-weeks, veterans could be transferred to a SARP in Bath, NY that offers stays up to three months.
SARP is located within the hospital where veterans get support from other veterans; they don’t leave the hospital without a buddy if and when they need them.
“This is helpful to learn from others active in recovering from their addictions. It can be helpful to veterans to talk with another vet,” she said.
“We must target the addiction and pain management,” Cummings said.
Such pain management techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga offer alternative treatments beyond medication.
Cummings said cognitive behavioral therapies work well in treating substance use and mental disorders.
“If you don’t address both at the same time, the veteran will not be fully served,” she said.