In order to understand what addictions are and how they tend to develop, family members may be forced to learn a significant amount of vocabulary terms. Often, this can be a confusing experience, as some terms that mean radically different things to medical experts are used interchangeably by the media and the public at large. This can lead to a significant amount of confusion, and in extreme cases, it can lead to a delay in receiving needed care. Often, the confusion centers on the terms “substance abuse” and “addiction.” These two terms do not mean the same thing, but one can certainly lead to another. Read on to find out more about what substance abuse really means, and how it might lead to addiction.

In order to be defined as abuse, the behavior must be ongoing for an extended period of time. People who binge on alcohol one weekend and then never drink again may have been using alcohol improperly one time, but they may not be considered alcohol abusers because they don’t continue to use the drug, and they don’t seem to feel compelled to repeat the behavior.

Confusion can set in, the WHO reports, because some experts use the term “abuse” to refer to any use of illicit substances, or any use of prescription medications without the supervision of a doctor. Under this definition, people who take a drug like heroin, even once, are considered drug abusers because they’re taking an illegal drug. This isn’t the medically accepted use of the term, however, so it’s not the usage that will be addressed in this article.

Prevalence and Drugs of Abuse

Obtaining a clear figure that defines the number of people who abuse drugs can be difficult, as some organizations lump those who abuse substances into numbers of people who are addicted to substances. However, there are some alarming numbers that might indicate that many people abuse substances each year. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 8.7 percent of Americans 12 or older admitted using drugs the month prior to participating in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009. This may indicate that many people are at least dabbling with drug use, and perhaps many are dealing with substance abuse or addiction.

While almost any substance could be abused, these are the substances commonly associated with high levels of abuse:

Risk Factors

While almost anyone could develop a substance abuse issue, there are some people who have an increased risk of abuse, when compared to the population at large. For example, it’s well known that people who endure some sort of violence or trauma tend to develop an unhealthy relationship with substances. To provide a concrete example, the NIDA reports that 27 percent of Army soldiers screened three to four months after returning from deployment to Iraq met the criteria for alcohol abuse. These solders seem to be relying on alcohol to help them move past the horrors they endured while fighting in a war.

People who endure trauma often develop mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In a separate study, published in the American Journal on Addictions, 30 to 59 percent of women who abuse substances also have post-traumatic stress disorder, often stemming from a history of repetitive assault, both physical and sexual, endured in childhood. Going through something so terrible, and receiving no help for that trauma, can leave people looking for ways to calm their minds and forget what has happened. Substance abuse seems to fit the bill for these people.

Substance abuse can also develop in association with other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders. For some people, substance abuse seems like an appropriate way to help them deal with a mental illness that has been troubling them for quite some time. For other people, substance abuse leads to chemical changes in the brain that can trigger latent mental illnesses. People who have both mental illnesses and substance abuse issues can face a significant amount of difficulty in their lives. For example, a study in the journal Hospital and Community Psychiatry found that people who had both substance abuse and mental illnesses were less able to manage their own lives, and they showed greater signs of hostility and suicidal thinking, when compared to people who did not have a substance abuse issue. It’s clear that these two conditions tend to influence one another, and make one another worse.

Many people wonder if they can inherit addictions. The research on this is slightly unclear, as some children who live with addicts seem to develop addictions, even if the people aren’t related by blood ties. It could be that watching someone deal with stress or disappointment by abusing substances could lead children to behave in the same way when they grow up, so addictions are a matter of nurture rather than nature. On the other hand, some responses to certain substances do seem to be dictated by genes, so it’s at least possible that some types of addictions are at least influenced by the genes people are born with.

Treatment Works

People who abuse substances need to stop doing so, in order to avoid the terrible consequences that addictions can bring about. Thankfully, multiple studies have shown that addiction treatments work and that people who have addictions can heal from the problems they’re facing. For example, a study in the journal JAMA found that people who went through alcohol and drug abuse treatment demonstrated “significant and pervasive” improvements in a variety of measures, including substance use, employment, criminal behavior and mental health. While living with substance abuse can be difficult, studies like this make it clear that people who have addictions can and do get better, if they get help.

At Michael’s House, we specialize in helping people who have both addictions and mental health issues. We use therapy techniques that can help people to understand the links between the two issues, and we work hard to ensure that those in our care can build up the skills they’ll need to stay sober for the rest of their lives. Please call us to find out more.

Speak with an Admissions Coordinator 877-345-8494