Prescription Drug Overdoses Overlooked Cause of Some Texas Veteran Deaths

For more than one-third of Texas’ Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military, the cause was a drug overdose, a deadly combination of drugs, or suicide, according to an investigation by the Austin American-Statesman.

The newspaper calls it “a largely unseen pattern of early deaths that federal authorities are failing to adequately track and have been slow to respond to.” The investigation looked at the causes of death for 266 veterans. For those with a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 80 percent died of an overdose, suicide or single-vehicle crash.

The analysis found 47 veterans died from drug overdoses or a deadly combination of drugs; 40 of these cases involved prescription medications. Five overdosed on cocaine or heroin, and had no trace of prescription drugs in their system. One died after huffing aerosol refrigerant, and another after taking Ecstasy. Most were under age 35.

Almost as many Texas veterans died after taking prescription drugs as committed suicide, the newspaper found. Veterans Affairs prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have jumped over the past decade, even though evidence is growing that these drugs in combination with PTSD is dangerous, the newspaper notes.

A study published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows people who are treated for both PTSD and substance abuse have improved PTSD symptoms, without an increase in severity of substance dependence. The researchers said the results counter the common belief that treating PTSD might worsen substance abuse, by bringing up negative memories.

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