Regular drug use affects roughly 14.5 percent of the US population, and it is estimated that at least 8.5 percent of the US population needs treatment for a substance abuse problem. Not counted in that statistic are the family members and close friends who are also affected by their loved one’s alcohol or drug use problem, and the effects of drug use on relationships across the board.
The substance abuse problem in the US is not a new issue in the slightest, but it isn’t one that is being effectively treated either. Drug policy is notoriously flawed, with the war on drugs leading to more unjust incarcerations than any other cause, while treatment remains incredibly scarce.
Less than half of people struggling with substance use disorder are getting the help they need, and despite decades of PSAs and activism, stigma and misinformation surrounding drug use remain high. Getting help for an addiction is not easy. And to make things worse, many people struggling with addiction either don’t recognize their problem or don’t want treatment.
So, how do you tackle treating substance abuse in the family or in yourself?
Defining a Substance Abuse Problem
Drug addiction is a biological and psychological health problem. Extensive drug use can alter the brain in a way that makes other forms of pleasure less meaningful, while promoting constant cravings and painful withdrawals to continue requiring input.
Meanwhile, most addictive drugs are not just addictive, but also dangerous. Many can cause an overdose if taken too often or in a high dose, while others kill you slowly, affecting the brain, heart, liver, kidney, lungs, and skin.
Substance Abuse Can be Isolating
Both physically and mentally, drug addiction can be isolating and excruciating. It can promote feelings of paranoia and depression, anxiety, and anger. A person struggling with a drug abuse problem can’t just stop. If they do, they become inundated by powerful cravings, irrational thoughts, and withdrawal symptoms. When they relapse, they often relapse hard, massively increasing the risk of an overdose.
Drug Use and Addiction is Different for Everybody
The steps from drug use to drug addiction are blurry and different for everybody. Countless people have used drugs at one point or another in their lives and never got addicted. In many cases, adults who try marijuana for the first time, get drunk, or even use a harder substance aren’t guaranteed to develop a drug abuse problem as a result. In fact, despite more than half of older teens and adults having used alcohol at some point or another, alcoholism does not affect most Americans.
Some people become addicted in weeks. Some people become addicted over years of occasional use, leading to more frequent use. Sometimes, addiction can be traced to a specific event or the onset of symptoms of something else. Sometimes, addiction happens completely randomly.
Some people blame peer pressure for teen drinking or smoking. In other cases, it’s a matter of family history and home environments.
Addiction Can Happen in Different Ways
What we do know is that addiction develops in different ways, due to different circumstances, and as a result of a wide range of common and uncommon risk factors, from trauma to chronic pain to drug availability, to depression and anxiety.
A person is typically considered addicted when they have reached the point where they cannot stop using an addictive substance despite trying, often accompanied by obvious negative consequences (such as failed relationships, dropped grades, lost jobs, or financial ruin).
Can You Treat Addiction Alone?
Treatment guidelines for addiction are complex because there are often many comorbid factors that impact treatment. People who struggle with addiction tend to have less of a support network, tend to struggle financially, tend to have other co-occurring mental health issues, and tend to struggle with other health problems as a result of, or in addition to their drug use, such as chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease, and so on. All these factors complicate treatment and make it even more important to choose a specialized treatment plan that involves professional outpatient or residential inpatient treatment.
Even on its own, addiction is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome alone. To effectively treat addiction, you need to:
- Take an extended break from drugs.
- Stay in a drug-free environment where you cannot relapse into old habits.
- Learn to adopt newer, healthier coping mechanisms.
- Rediscover old hobbies and develop new interests.
- Form bonds with others and improve your social skills, to create a stronger support network, and work on your emotional skillset.
An addiction treatment program must help someone fulfill these criteria while simultaneously addressing their comorbid physical or psychiatric health conditions and help them transition back into life after treatment through community-based resources, such as support groups.
How Therapy Helps with Addiction
Detox, withdrawal management, and helping clients rediscover ways to manage stress and life circumstances without drugs are some of the key features of most drug addiction programs. But therapy is key as well, with or without comorbid mental health conditions.
Individual and group therapy sessions help clients learn to separate from the guilt that is common in addiction, and drastically improve their mental health over time by helping them separate unwanted or negative thoughts from more productive, healthier thinking patterns. Addiction can often cause or entrench feelings of anxiety or depression, even in clients without a diagnosis of either.
Addiction and Medication
While professional addiction treatment relies on helping people psychologically cope with the effects of a substance abuse problem through therapy and outpatient programming, while utilizing inpatient residential programs to combat the physical effects of addiction, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms, there are medications to help fight addiction as well.
Some of these are long-term cravings-reducing drugs such as acamprosate for alcohol, while others are used to stop acute overdoses, such as naloxone for opioids. Not all drugs have counteracting medications – and different medications have different uses and mechanisms of action. For more information, ask your doctor or treatment specialist.
Finding help is important. You shouldn’t try to do this alone. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, it’s important not to place the blame on yourself or take responsibility for their treatment. Support and help them, yes, but understand that their success in treatment relies mostly on themselves.
Sadly, the most common reason not to seek treatment is cost. Over half of people who did not get the treatment they needed for a substance abuse problem cited healthcare costs as one of their top reasons. Other common reasons included not knowing where to get treatment and thinking they could handle it alone.
Your input and motivation are important during addiction treatment. But professional help is key.