Substance Use Disorders (SUD) is a clinical term otherwise known as alcohol and drugs abuse, addiction or alcohol and drugs dependency.
Scientists began to study addictive behaviors in the 1930s; until this day, some cultures and traditions still consider people addicted to drugs and alcohol as to be morally flawed and lacking willpower.
Those views shaped societies’ responses to substance use, treating as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punishment rather that prevention and treatment.
Unfortunately, regardless of the societal perception, consequences of addiction are vast and affect families, communities and societies in general and most importantly the heavy weight of consequences is borne by the users; and long term consequences can be fatal and deadly.
The most common effects of long term users are; poor health, socio-economical consequences and criminal justice records. People of all ages (babies, teenagers, young adults, adults, parents and seniors) suffer the harmful consequences of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction; this article will focus more on the youth category.
Addiction is often defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease; drugs & alcohol change the structure of the brain and how it works; and it provokes a compulsive desire of seeking and use despite harmful consequences.
Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction. Brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control (fronto-temporal lobe/loose filter)
Addiction is like any other diseases, such as heart disease. Any abnormal condition including addiction, disrupts the normal, healthy functioning of the underlying organ, they both have serious harmful consequences, most of disease are the results of poor lifestyle choices; therefore, they are preventable and treatable, but if left untreated, can last a lifetime.
The redundant question to practitioners, especially from family members, is to know why people do take substances; well there is no single scientifically proven answer to that question, however from the compilation of users’ testimonies; many users share that they started using;
(1) To feel good – Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria (state of intense excitement and happiness) is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy.
In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction to do better;
(2) To feel better – Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, lack of sleep, lack of better coping strategies and depression, begin abusing substances in an attempt to lessen/ease feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in starting to use substance as a coping mechanisms; continuing to abuse, or relapse in patients recovering from addiction or
(3) Curiosity (because others are doing it) – In this respect teenagers are particularly vulnerable because of the strong influence of peer pressure. Teens are more likely than adults to engage in risky or daring behaviors to impress their friends and express their independence from parental and social rules.
I can picture my readers wondering what is the problem if it makes people feel good or do better; well, let me break this down for you why this “feel good” notion becomes problematic. For the first time users, it may appear to what seem to be positive effects; they also may believe that they can control their use.
However, substance can quickly take over a person’s life. Over time, if substance use continues, other joyful activities become less and less pleasurable, at that point taking substance becomes necessary for the user just to feel “normal.” They may then compulsively seek and take substances even though it causes tremendous problems for them and their loved ones.
Some people may start to feel the need to take higher or more frequent doses, even in the early stages of their substance use. These are the early stage signs of an addiction. In some circumstances; even relatively moderate substance use poses dangers. Consider how a social drinker can become intoxicated, get behind the wheel of a car, and quickly turn a pleasurable activity into a tragedy that affects many lives.
Family members are often puzzled to realize that even after multiple incidents caused by intoxication; the individuals continue to abuse substances. Well this brings the question to know if continued substance abuse is voluntary or involuntary behavior.
So far, there no single factor to determine whether a person will become addicted or not. Surely, the initial decision to use substance is typically and solely voluntary; however, with continued use, a person loses the ability of self-control; and this becomes a hallmark of addiction.
Before I conclude, I will briefly touch on prevention approach and recovery. Prevention is rather complex but feasible. One of the brain areas still maturing during adolescence and puberty is the prefrontal cortex; this part is the brain area which enables us to assess situations, make sound decisions, and keep our emotions and desires under control.
The fact that this critical part of a teenager’s brain is still a work in progress puts them at increased risk of making poor decisions. Prevention planning is of multiple façade; it involves multiple principles and requires consistency.
Treatment, recovery and aftercare plan will be decided between the practitioner and the patient. There are many options that have been successful in treating SUDs; treatment options include behavioral counseling, medication, treating withdrawal symptoms and concurrent disorders like depression and anxiety; as well as creating a comprehensive long term follow up plan to prevent relapses.
Chantal Mudahogora is a Therapeutic Counsellor at Alzheimer Society of Hamilton and Halton Ontario, Canada