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Recognizing the Role of Peers in Recovery for Veterans

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Date: November 09, 2023

Veterans Day is a time to honor those who have served in our nation’s military. Veterans have unique experiences that are part of the collective culture of military service. Service members are trained to prioritize accomplishing a mission first. In or out of uniform, some former service members might not feel comfortable and safe prioritizing their behavioral health and reaching out for support.

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that in 2021 approximately 2.8 million Veterans experienced an illicit drug or alcohol use disorder and 92.4 percent did not receive treatment, while approximately 3.1 million Veterans experienced a mental illness and 43.6 percent did not receive treatment. It’s important that we also recognize Veterans who have engaged in treatment, committed to a process of change, and are striving to reach their full potential in recovery. NSDUH data indicates that two out of three Veterans who ever had a mental health issue considered themselves to be in recovery; three out of four Veterans who ever had a substance use problem considered themselves to be in recovery. In fact, recovery from substance use problems was more often reported among Veterans than other groups of respondents. These reports of recovery give us hope and prompt us to ask ourselves how to engage more Veterans in behavioral health services.

Peer relationships are an important part of military culture…whether they’re called battle buddies, teammates, or brothers/sisters in arms, military peers support one another in their military careers and experiences. It’s fitting that we look at leveraging peer relationships when Veterans are experiencing hardships like mental health and substance use disorders. Peer support is increasingly recognized as a crucial part of the overall ecosystem for recovery and the Biden-Harris Administration has identified expanding access to peer support as an important component of tackling the nation's mental health crisis.

SAMHSA’s partnership with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among Service Members, Veterans and their Families now includes all 50 states and five territories, with each state/territory implementing a strategic action plan for suicide prevention. The Challenge has supported promising practices around military/Veteran peer support. For example, Texas’ Military Veteran Peer Network (MVPN) is made up of certified peer service coordinators and peer volunteers placed within the local mental health authorities across Texas to create a statewide peer-to-peer network available for service members, Veterans, and their family members. The MVPN provides services including direct peer-to-peer support, training on suicide prevention and military cultural competency, coordination of Mental Health First Aid, and warm-handoffs to local resources based on individual needs.

Whether or not you have served, you can support a Veteran on their journey to wellness.

When care and support reflect individuals’ unique cultural values, including military culture, people are more likely to succeed. With the right supports and resources, Veterans experiencing mental, and substance use disorders can recover and lead meaningful lives.

*Please note that SAMHSA is not able to endorse any community-based programs. The MVPN and American Legion programs are featured above for informational purposes as examples that serve the public and are consistent with SAMHSA’s mission. Numerous similar peer-based programs exist throughout the nation.