Neighboring Suffolk County is home to the largest population of veterans of any county in New York state — a proud distinction that also gives us Long Islanders a profound responsibility to provide them with all the services they need.
But there is one crisis facing veterans that deserves our special attention: addiction. Substance-use disorder among veterans is a growing problem. Trauma and mental illness increase the risk for servicemen and women.
On Veterans Day — and all year round — Long Islanders should be asking ourselves, what can we do to help?
Mental health and substance-use disorders are the leading cause of hospitalizations among our troops. It’s not hard to imagine why. Exposure to combat, the unimaginable stress of international deployment in hostile areas, and the psychological impacts that follow are all risk factors that can lead to alcohol and drug use among servicemen and women. Even worse, they are less likely than civilians to seek help if they become addicted because of the perceived stigma.
We are also in the midst of an opioid epidemic, including historic levels of misuse and abuse of prescription and illicit drugs. And, despite significant efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health, substance use among military personnel is rising even more rapidly than the national average.
So, how can you help?
Know the signs of addiction and substance-use disorder. Weight gain or loss, dilated or pin-pointed eyes, irritability and change in sleeping habits are all physical symptoms. But behavioral changes are also important telltales, including self-loathing or destructive choices. Someone’s very personality can change.
Understand how to talk to a loved one if you’re concerned that he or she is suffering from addiction. The best thing you can do is listen. It’s important to provide support.
Know what resources are available. In Suffolk County, the Veterans Services Agency is staffed with ex-military professionals who can provide valuable information and access to programs. They can help veterans improve their quality of life with job training, benefits and housing aid. Veterans Administration facilities are also an option for treatment. But some veterans dealing with addiction and mental health issues don’t want to be seen by fellow service members. There can also be waiting lists, and treatment is limited to short-term care.
We also have the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, which treats post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, two serious ailments closely tied to substance-use disorder.
Treatment centers like Phoenix House are dedicated to helping people overcome alcohol and substance use. Phoenix House’s Edward D. Miller Center, in Lake Ronkonkoma, offers services specifically for veterans and service members. The residential facility — established by Miller, a proud veteran and the former national chairman of Phoenix House — is designed with veterans’ needs in mind, and its services give veterans the tools they need to live healthy, rewarding lives.
Phoenix House’s military services coordinator works with patients on the road to recovery, and also does community outreach with veteran populations. The coordinator also provides veterans with a path to recovery and connects them to needed services. Phoenix House focuses on treating the whole person and his or her family while providing a community of support.
This approach is key to addressing addiction. You can help by just being a good brother, sister, father, mother, cousin or friend. Just knowing that they are not alone is half the battle for veterans struggling with these problems.
So, with the memories of Veterans Day ceremonies still vivid, think about the veterans in your life. Maybe they’re manifesting signs of addiction or mental illness. Maybe they need a job or a decent place to live. Or maybe they just need to know you’re there for them.
It’s up to all of us to help in any way we can. After all, our veterans looked out for us. Now we must look out for them. Honor them by knowing how you can help and doing your part.
You can find more information on Phoenix House’s services at www.phoenixhouse.org/locations/new-york/.
Monica Martinez is a state senator representing Suffolk County’s 3rd District. Ann-Marie K. Foster is president and CEO of Phoenix Houses of New York & Long Island.