When talking about substance abuse and substance dependence some people tend to classify the actions of those who use the substances as a choice rather than a mental health problem. Studies show that some people are genetically predisposed to have addicting behaviors that cause them to use, and sometimes abuse, specific substances. Other studies show that people who have other mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, tend to self-medicate by using substances which can lead them to develop a substance abuse. Substance abuse cannot cause a mental disorder but it can complicate it or make it more evident.
Having substance dependence (addiction) means that a person is unable to control their impulses in regards to specific substances. The person finds that they can no longer function normally without using a specific substance. The person’s body will stop producing necessary chemicals that have been substituted by certain drugs. People with addiction problems will experience tolerance of their preferred drug; meaning that they will seek out a higher dosage to feel the same ‘high’ as the first time. They will tend to use substances compulsively, no matter their state of mood. The substance user can experience physical reactions such as nausea, tremors, and low blood pressure if they stop using the substance. They can also experience psychological reactions such as irritability, depression and anxiety.
In a substance abuse happens when a person actively engages in activities and behaviors that can cause harm with the goal of getting their preferred substance. This may include drunk driving, getting arrested for possession and use of illegal substances, failing to keep commitments because the person was too high or drunk to functions, breaking up with a partner over fights about substance use, between many other risky behaviors. Substance abuse and substance dependence similar, but not the same. A person can have substance dependence and not be an abuser.
The first step, like all other mental disorders, is to admit that there is a problem. For a substance user to seek help they must first become aware that their dependence is a problem. Even though family and friends can help create interventions and support for the substance user, it is the substance user who has to take the first step.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers in-depth information regarding statistics, continuum of care, best practices, prevention and other important variables when working with substance use. The National institute of Drug Abuse offers helpful information such as Drug Facts and a list of Drugs of Abuse. Finally, Mental Health America offers a few pointers for family and friends and how they can support and help loved one who have an addiction problem.