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What is Substance Abuse?
Substance abuse is the harmful or dangerous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. Substance abuse can result from using substances in a way that is not intended or prescribed, or because an individual uses more than prescribed.
Substance use can lead to dependence syndrome, which involves a cluster of behavioral, cognitive, and physical dependence symptoms that develop after repeated substance use.
Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, substance abuse differs from addiction. While people with substance abuse problems can quit or change their unhealthy behavior, addiction is a mental health disorder that prevents individuals from stopping even when their condition causes harm.
How Common is Substance Abuse?
According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 60.2% of people in the United States over the age of 12 reported use of an illegal drug, non-medical use of prescribed medication, or heavy alcohol use within the past year, and 8% met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.
Many people struggle with both psychiatric disorders and substance abuse. The mental illness may be present before the abuse, or an individual may use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Drug and alcohol abuse typically trigger or worsen the symptoms of mental disorders. According to the NSDUH, 9.2 million adults in the United States experienced mental illness and a substance use disorder in 2018.
What is Harmful Use of Substances or Alcohol?
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), substance use qualifies as abuse if the repeated use causes significant impairment, such as:
- Impaired control
- Social problems
- Risky use
- Drug effects such as increased tolerance
For example, if you drink enough to experience frequent hangovers, miss work frequently due to drug use, or drink more than you intend to, your substance use likely qualifies as abuse.
Some health officials argue that the casual, recreational use of some drugs is not harmful, while others argue that it qualifies as drug abuse. In recent years, research has shown that marijuana may have more harmful effects than initially believed. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that some marijuana users can become psychologically dependent, which can lead to abuse.
Symptoms of Substance Use
If you believe a friend or family member uses illicit substances, looking out for common physical and behavioral symptoms of substance use can help you determine how to move forward. Some of the most noticeable symptoms of drug and alcohol use are related to specific physiological signs. Some of the most common physical symptoms of substance use include:
- Glazed or bloodshot eyes
- Dilated or constricted pupils
- Sudden weight changes
- Changes in physical health
- Dental issues
- Skin changes
- Sleep disorders (difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
The use of some drugs can also significantly alter an individual’s behavior, and substance use can impair the brain’s ability to focus and think clearly. The following changes in behavior may be associated with problematic drug abuse or alcohol abuse:
- Increased aggression and/or irritability
- Changes in attitude or personality
- Dramatic changes in behaviors or habits
- Involvement in criminal activity
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What Should You Do If You’re Struggling With Substance Abuse?
If your substance use has become harmful, you’re not alone. In the United States, about 27.1 million (one in 10) people were substance abusers in 2015, while the number of patients receiving treatment totaled three million. If you’re struggling to quit or cut back on your drug or alcohol use, the following resources can help.
- Therapy: Working with a mental health professional or human services counselor can help you understand your substance abuse patterns and reduce or stop your drug or alcohol abuse. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), integrated intervention, where a person receives mental health support for their diagnosed mental health condition and substance use disorder, is the most effective treatment plan.
- Social support: Joining a support group can allow you to meet others facing the same challenges and overcome stigma. Advocacy groups and treatment programs, such as NAMI Peer-to-Peer, NAMI Homefront, NAMI Basics, and NAMI Family-to-Family, can be especially helpful for individuals looking to stop their drug or alcohol use altogether. NAMI, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), offer free access to treatment resources.
- Medical treatment: If you’re struggling with physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms, consider seeking medical treatment. Medical treatment typically begins with a withdrawal process managed by medical professionals, followed by treatment with medical support. Contact your healthcare provider to discuss medical treatment options.
- Hotlines: If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, SAMHSA Hotline at 1-800-622-4357, or NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) for immediate mental health support.
What Should You Look For In a Therapist to Help With Substance Abuse?
During periods of acute stress, it’s essential to acknowledge the challenges you may face to avoid using substances to self-medicate or cope with isolation. If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder, acute stress can heighten anxiety and other mental health problems.
If you’re struggling with substance abuse, a qualified mental health professional can help you understand your mental health needs and avoid compulsive drug or alcohol use. WithTherapy’s unique matchmaking service uses science and research to match each patient to a personalized shortlist of mental health experts based on personal preferences.
We’ll connect you with a therapist, social worker, or psychologist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your preferences and requirements. Working with a qualified mental health professional can help you understand your substance abuse patterns, take control of your drug or alcohol use, and learn healthy coping strategies.