Understanding Substance Use Disorder Counseling

According to Mental Health America, “The majority of suicides worldwide are related to mental health disorders; depression, substance abuse, and psychosis are the biggest risk factors.” Additionally, in 2017, a team of researchers looking at data on more than 4.8 million veterans, found that veterans with substance use disorders had twice the risk of suicide compared to those without a substance use disorder (Source: American Addiction Centers).

As we recognize Suicide Prevention Awareness Month this September, Ashley Tatum, MHA, Case Manager and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Counselor for The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at VVSD in San Diego, part of Cohen Veterans Network, a national not-for-profit network of mental health clinics for post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families, provides insight on the impacts of SUD within the military community with the below Q&A:

Why is SUD Counseling important within our military community?

Addiction impacts many veterans. We realized that many of our clients who were dealing with PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders were also struggling with substance abuse challenges. Research shows that between 82-93% of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq with a SUD had at least one co-occurring disorder. Also, veterans who have a SUD are 3-4 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. (Source: https://veteranaddiction.org/rehab-guide/veteran-statistics)

Can you share some common myths and barriers when it comes to substance abuse counseling? One barrier is that there is a stigma around being considered weak for seeking treatment. Another one I hear is fearing the labels of drug or alcohol addict. Even in my sessions, some clients will not use accurate terms such as recovery, sobriety, and relapse because of the weight of these words.

 What should people know before seeking substance abuse counseling?

You should know that there is a wonderful community within the recovery world. Many people who work in the field of addiction are either in recovery themselves or have loved people through addiction and have a true passion for helping others on their journey. I am not in recovery, but I have loved many family members through their addiction, and I have witnessed firsthand how beautiful life can be on the other side. I am also big on accountability and often I am told I have a tough love approach. But this is because I believe in my clients. I know they can work hard and rise above the challenges they have faced with drugs or alcohol.

 What should family members of someone with a substance abuse issue do?

It is important to build a community of support. This can include things such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or a group with SMART Recovery or a local chapter of The National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am also open to family members attending sessions with their loved ones. This gives them the opportunity to vocalize their feelings and experiences in a safe, neutral setting.

Can you tell us about SUD Counseling at the Cohen Clinic at VVSD?

The substance abuse counseling that we provide consists of 10-12 sessions. During the first few sessions, we do an addiction severity assessment, treatment goals and a relapse prevention plan. Then we move on to working on tools to obtain and maintain sobriety. Clients can use this service along with therapy at our Cohen Clinic.

When it comes to suicide prevention, Cohen Veterans Network encourages people to know the warning signs and ask questions. Warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change.

Warning signs include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Increased substance use
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Reckless or risky behavior
  • Giving away possessions

Are you a veteran in crisis or concerned about one?

Did you know that if you dial 988 then press 1 you will be connected to the Veterans Crisis Line? This new number makes it easier for people to remember and for those in crisis to access care.

Currently, the majority of people in crisis call 911. But 911 was not designed to handle mental health needs and those who call 911 during a mental health crisis often have to waiting hours or days to get care. The 988 lifeline will connect callers to trained counselors at crisis centers near them.

Suicide prevention is a top priority for Cohen Veterans Network and our clinic. The stigma associated with suicide and seeking help are significant barriers to treatment. This crisis line will help promote access to critical mental health services while also reducing stigma associated with help seeking. With this critical information, we hope to help empower individuals to act should they be concerned about a loved one. It could help save a life.

By Hope Phifer
Sr. Communications Manager
Cohen Veterans Network