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Substance abuse and drug-related deaths have been skyrocketing in the United States. This trend existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and was exacerbated because of it. The ongoing epidemic of substance use disorders shows no signs of slowing, even as pandemic restrictions ease.
Causes of Substance Abuse
Much research is currently underway as to the potential triggers for substance abuse and addiction. There are several factors that psychologists and researchers point to as causes.
Early Childhood Trauma
There is a significant link between childhood emotional and physical abuse and drug abuse disorder later in life. In fact, adverse childhood events (ACEs) are positively associated with all sorts of mental health disorders, as well as drug use disorders. The higher a child’s ACE score, the likelier they are to abuse substances and suffer addiction.
Stressors such as financial and family problems (or a global pandemic) can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse problems. Many people who failed to develop healthy coping mechanisms in childhood often turn to mind-altering chemicals to deal with stress.
Genetic factors account for some – but not all – of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to substances. Often, genetics interact with external factors, and this combination leads to chemical dependency. For instance, a person with a genetic predisposition to drug addiction might not wind up with one if they don’t experience a stressor severe enough to tip them into it.
Mental illness is a common risk factor for chemical dependency. Many people who suffer mental health issues are vulnerable to self-medicating if they don’t get the treatment they need. Mental disorders and substance use disorders are often co-occurring because certain illegal drugs can also cause brain changes that lead to mental health problems.
Most Commonly Abused Drugs
Addiction in the US isn’t only related to illegal drug use. Substance abuse problems are also often related to legal drugs such as opioids and alcohol. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, severe addiction is often the result of using legal prescription drugs for legitimate purposes.
Ethyl alcohol is one of the oldest addictive substances in humanity’s collective history. We’ve been consuming, abusing, and becoming addicted to this central nervous system depressant for thousands of years. It’s the psychoactive ingredient in beer, wine, and spirits. Alcohol is legal for those over 21 in all fifty states.
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant derived from the processed leaves of the coca plant. Leaves are soaked in solvents to extract cocaine hydrochloride. There are a few legal uses for this substance. It’s mostly used for local anesthesia. However, it’s much more commonly abused recreationally, which is illegal in the United States.
Marijuana, on the whole, is among the least harmful and least addictive drugs on this list. However, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless – just less harmful by comparison. The THC inside the leaves of the marijuana plant is what causes users to feel high.
THC dependence and withdrawal are usually less severe than with other substances. But heavy users do report symptoms when they reduce consumption.
Nicotine is a legal, highly addictive stimulant that often leads to severe chemical dependency. Nicotine is harmful on its own. But its most common delivery method – tobacco – is also a known carcinogen. Many people who vape, smoke, chew, or otherwise use tobacco can find it as difficult to quit as illegal substances like cocaine and methamphetamine.
Opioid drugs are derived from the poppy plant or synthetic compounds meant to mimic its derivatives. They include illicit substances like heroin and legal opioid painkillers like morphine, oxycontin, and fentanyl.
These substances are among the drugs most responsible for the sharp uptick in drug use disorders across the country. This is often due to the fact that patients prescribed licit opioid pharmaceuticals for legitimate needs become addicted to them and continue to use them long after the original health concern is gone.
Methamphetamine (known as crystal meth) is a highly addictive stimulant that is often manufactured using a plethora of poisonous chemicals like paint thinner or drain cleaner. This substance would be harmful on its own, but its toxicity is often exacerbated by the presence of these compounds in the final product. Amphetamines as a drug class have legal uses, but street-made meth is illegal in all states.
Substance Use Disorder
Chemical use disorder can be caused by one of any number of addictive substances, but once a person has it, its symptoms are often remarkably similar. They can range from milder forms of dependency in which a person can still function in their day-to-day lives to uncontrollable compulsive substance use that leads to eventual death.
Whether it’s alcohol, prescription medication, or illegal substances, the body becomes physically dependent on a chemical to maintain stability. At first, the chemical causes the user to feel good. But eventually, physical changes in the body or brain mean the user needs the chemical in order to avoid suffering the symptoms of withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms are extremely painful and can be so unbearable they lead to the reuse of the offending chemical. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the severity of the addiction and the chemical involved. Symptoms include:
- Aches and pains
- Mood swings
- Cold or hot flashes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sweats and fever
Withdrawal symptoms can last for days or weeks but will eventually subside as long as the addict avoids the chemical. Severe withdrawal, especially if it’s related to long-term use, can be dangerous and may actually lead to death. So people with severe chemical dependency must always try to quit with the help of trained health professionals.
Despite the misery of withdrawal, it is possible to break free from compulsive substance use. Many treatment options exist, from group therapy to addiction treatment medications and individual behavioral therapy, to help increase self-control and heal wounds from child abuse and other trauma.
It is common for addicts to struggle for a long time to end recurrent drug use. But if they get treatment tailored to their specific needs, recovery is possible.
Alcohol and illicit drug use can have all sorts of negative effects on health, some of which may be permanent. Brain changes, cancer, and organ damage are all common results of long-term drug dependence. Those who kick the habit will oftentimes need to keep in contact with their healthcare providers to maintain their health after recovering from a drug use disorder.
Treating drug abuse disorder like the disease it is is a vital step to helping victims recover from it. Drugs, both legal and illegal, can lead to chemical dependency that often becomes severe. The good news is that with the right treatment, recovery is possible.