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A large proportion of the population consumes psychoactive substances. On the other hand, a much smaller proportion has substance abuse problems. These occur when the use of drugs becomes harmful to the user and/or those around them. For example, many people drink alcohol but only so many are alcoholics: their drug use becomes self-destructive.
Addiction is often confused with substance abuse but is actually only a symptom of it. It consists in compulsive drug use. The brain’s reward pathway is hijacked by drugs meaning that repetitive use can make it extremely hard for the user to resist the temptation to use, even in situations when it would be harmful, which leads to substance abuse.
It is not related to personality or maturity, anyone can fall into addiction. It is quite hard to notice in oneself and that’s why the more people are informed about it the higher chance they may be able to detect it in friends and family and help them.
It’s important that the myth of instant addiction is debunked. It is emerging that addiction is not so much related to the actual chemicals being consumed but rather to environment: both mental and physical studies have shown that even though the morphine that patients receive in hospital is much stronger than that on the streets, it doesn’t seem to cause addiction.
Unhealthy environments and bad habits can both lead to substance abuse. This can be anywhere from a war-zone - American soldiers in Vietnam using a lot of heroin is well documented - to living on tough estates or simply feeling lonely.
Be careful of your drug habits. If you notice you can’t stop taking drugs even though they are having a very negative impact on your life, e.g. missing work to get high, or taking them to forget things that make you unhappy, just to pass the time or simply can’t stop, you may have a problem. Don’t rely on drugs to get you over a bad day, this is how it becomes your coping mechanism. Once that happens, you experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms making it very hard to limit or stop your drug use.
If you think that you may be addicted to a substance, or know of someone, ask for help. Seeking help is the best option, do not be afraid to refer others if you think they may not be in control anymore. Drink and Drug News (DDN) has produced a guide to residential treatment, with testimonials and information on different treatment options.
Learn more about reducing the damage from drugs with our harm-reduction chatbot, Lu.