Substance Abuse and Addiction

There are numerous misconceptions revolving substance abuse and addiction. From a distance, people who have never experienced or had anyone close to them abuse or fall into addiction often question and criticize people’s inability to stop drug use. However, unknown to many,  drug addiction is a serious and complex mental disorder that demands more than mere intention and will to quit. Continued use of drugs changes the brain such that quitting becomes almost impossible to stop. Luckily, years of research have found different treatment plans that can help people successfully recover from addiction.

Substance addiction or drug addiction as most people call is a chronic mental illness that affects the brain and impacts behaviour. It is characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive in a way that is difficult to resist despite the negative consequences and harm associated with use. Addiction does not only involve illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin. People can also become addicted to other substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications like opioid painkillers, antidepressants, sleeping pills, and other legal substances and cause the same complications. In fact, in the United States, prescription painkillers, specifically opioid painkillers, have become a major risk, with thousands of people dying from overdosing strong opioid medications.

Addiction does not occur overnight. It is a gradual process that can develop over months or years. As a result, most people don’t even know they are addicted until they cannot stop using a drug. Also, not all people who use drugs develop an addiction. Some people can use a drug for recreational purposes without falling into addiction. However, for some people, drug use causes severe effects and may take a toll on their health and even extend to their work and social life.

When does abuse become an addiction?

The line between abuse and addiction is thin. Drug abuse is when one uses a substance for other purposes than the intended. It could start as taking an extra dose of prescribed medication or taking someone else’ prescription.  Often, most people begin using drugs voluntarily to feel happy, relieve stress, or avoid reality. With time, it blossoms to a regular habit and becomes a part of their daily lives. Continued drug use grows to impact the brain such that it becomes dependent on the substance to function normally. Dependence begins to cause behavioural changes, and one continues to use despite harmful consequences. Addiction occurs when someone can’t stop using even when there are apparent health, behavioural, emotional, and financial problems to the user and people close to them. The urge to get and use is so intense and any attempts to quit results in severe withdrawal symptoms. Once addicted, quitting may require treatment and help from family and friends.


Compton, P., & Chang, Y. P. (2017). Substance Abuse and Addiction. Clinical journal of oncology nursing21(2).

Green, J. (2017). Epidemiology of opioid abuse and addiction. Journal of Emergency Nursing43(2), 106-113.

MacNicol, B. (2017). The biology of addiction. Canadian Journal of Anesthesia/Journal canadien d’anesthésie64(2), 141-148.


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