Substance abuse is a real problem in many parts of the world. It not only causes pain and suffering for the individuals involved, but also those around them and society as a whole. Despite continued attempts to understand and eradicate drug and alcohol abuse there is no sign that it is abating. It is a complex problem because there are so many reasons why people fall into substance abuse in the first place. Unless all these reasons are considered, it will be difficult to effectively tackle the problem.
One way to define substance abuse would be to say that it is a pattern of behavior where people use mild-altering substances to a harmful extent. The DSM-IV definition is more precise in its definition and describes substance abuse as:
* Repeated use of the substance in ways that would be considered physically harmful
* Use of the substance is impacting the ability of the individual to meet their family, social, or work commitments
* Continued use of the substance despite evidence that it is leading to difficulties
* Legal problems due to use of the substance
The individual only has to meet one of the above criteria within the last year for them to be considered a substance abuser by the DSM-IV definition.
The mind-altering substances that people can abuse include:
* Prescription drugs
Addiction refers to a physical as well as psychological dependence on a substance. Not all substance abusers will be physically addicted. This means that they won’t suffer withdrawal symptoms should they try to stop. If they continue to abuse these substances there is a high probability that they will become fully addicted. Once they reach the stage of physical dependence it becomes a lot harder for them to quit the abuse; most people will die as a result. Substance abusers, who are not yet addicted, are often able to escape this negative behavior without too much help. Just finding out the dangers involved can be motivation enough to change their ways.
The most common reasons for why people will abuse these substances include:
* Peer pressure
* As a way to deal with stress
* Growing up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse is considered normal behavior
* Self-medication to deal with mental illness
* Relationship problems
* Financial worries
* Loss of a loved one
* Those with low self-esteem may abuse substances in order to boost confidence
* Substance abuse as part of a personality disorder
* Teenage rebellion
* To promote relaxation
* To forget normal life
Traditionally there has been more of a focus on the behavior of the substance abuser rather than looking at their environment. There is little doubt though, that coming from certain environments does predispose people to alcohol and drug abuse. Those who grew up in dysfunctional households are more likely to turn to this type of activity. The fact that the use of these chemicals is often portrayed on TV and in the movies may also play a part. Those individuals who are from impoverished neighborhoods can turn to drugs as a response to the lack of opportunity in their life. Some inner city areas experience a lot of crime, and people living there may turn to addiction as a means to deal with the stress of this.
Humans are highly influenced by other humans, and this plays a role in substance abuse. There is a lot of pressure on the individual to fit in with their peers. It can take a lot of self-esteem for the individual to be able to withstand peer pressure. This type of influence can be particularly strong in the teenage years, but it continues to exert an influence throughout the life of the individual. There have been different studies that show how most young people begin using these substances due to the persuasion of friends. Some people are more susceptible to this type of pressure than others.
Social learning theory suggests that substance abuse is a learned behavior. It is based on the idea that humans learn from observing other people. If the individual notices that using these substances seems to bring other people enjoyment, it will encourage them to do the same.
One reason why many individuals abuse substances is that they are attempting to self-medicate an existing mental health condition. Such people can be aware or unaware of their problem. They may just feel that something is not quite right in life. Those who are suffering from conditions such as depression or anxiety may find that they find temporary relief by turning to alcohol or other drugs. This approach may help in the short-term, but ultimately it can lead to a dual diagnosis. Not only do they still have a mental health problem, but also an addiction to deal with as well. Anyone who abuses these substances can also develop a mental health problem as a result. This may encourage them to escalate their usage.
Some personality types do seem to be more likely to be drawn towards substance abuse. The addictive personality refers to a number of characteristics that many of these people will share. This does not mean that all substance abusers will have these traits, but they do seem more likely to share these characteristics then the general population. The addictive personality includes traits such as:
* Easily stressed
* High degree of acceptance for deviant behavior
* Admiration of those who rebellious
* History of anti-social behavior
* Low confidence and self-esteem
* Periods of depression
* Jealousy and insecurity in relationships
* Attention seeking behavior
* They tend to feel out of place in society
* They find it hard to delay gratification
Choice theory has developed out of the work of the American psychologist William Glasser. It is based on the idea that behavior such as substance abuse always occurs because of choice. The individual develops the idea that using these substances will improve their life, and this explains why they do it.
The fact that there are so many causes of substance abuse makes it harder to tackle. In the past it has been viewed too narrowly and this meant that attempts to prevent it failed. It might not be possible to completely eradicate such abuse, but a multi-pronged approach may greatly reduce its occurrence. Education may be effective at discouraging more people from moving from substance abuse to addiction. If such individuals can be stopped before they develop a physical addiction it will mean that they are spared a lot of suffering.