What Is Substance Abuse?

Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

What is substance abuse?

According to the WHO, substance abuse definition is defined as the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illegal drugs. Psychoactive substance use can lead to dependence syndrome - a cluster of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use. Signs of addiction typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state. An important difference between substance use and abuse is that substance use does not always lead to addiction however, it always comes with the risk that it might lead to it.

What are the causes of substance abuse?

Certain risk factors may increase someone's likelihood to abuse substances. Sociocultural factors for example deal with the impact of society and culture on addiction. Factors within a family that influence a child's early development (e.g. chaotic home environment, lack of nurturing and parental attachment etc.) have been shown to be related to increased risk of teenage drug abuse. Factors related to a child’s socialization outside the family may also increase risk of drug abuse e.g. association with a deviant peer group, peer pressure, perception of approval of drug use behavior in certain segments of society.

In addition to the sociocultural factors there are also psychodynamic factors that contribute to a person's addiction. Psychodynamic factors are for example emotional issues, past history, and psychological disorders which are often subconscious. Researches show that there is a connection between mental health and substance abuse: mental illness can play a role in addiction as many people with psychological disorders turn to substances as a way of self-medicate.

What are the effects of substance abuse?

Consequences of substance abuse especially teenage substance abuse can be very serious. People who persistently abuse substances often experience an array of problems including:

    • Difficulties at workplace or school: declining performance, absenteeism and increased potential for dropping out or losing job.


    • Physical health problems: injuries due to accidents, physical disabilities and diseases, effects of possible overdoses, increased risk of death through suicide, homicide, accident, and illnesses.


    • Mental health problems: depression, developmental lags, apathy, withdrawal, conduct problems, personality disorders, suicidal thoughts and other psychosocial dysfunctions.


    • Relationship problems with peers or partner: alienation and stigmatization by peers, disengagement from community activities and relationships.


    • Involvement with the justice system: violent and income-generating crimes, gangs, drug trafficking, prostitution, arrest, adjudication.


Additionally, there can be serious consequences for family members too. Substance abuse can cause family crises and jeopardize many aspects of family life, sometimes resulting in family dysfunction. Substance abuse can drain a family's financial and emotional resources. Finally consequences of substance abuse are harmful for the community, and the entire society.


Most substance abusers believe they can stop using drugs on their own, but a majority who try do not succeed. Craving for the certain substance might continue even after drug use stopped. Because of these ongoing cravings, the most important component of treatment is preventing relapse. Treating substance abuse depends on both the person and the substance being used. Behavioral treatment provides the patient with strategies to cope with drug cravings and ways to avoid relapse. Prescribed medications might also be the part of the treatment to control withdrawal symptoms.

Often, a drug user has an underlying mental disorder, one that increases risk of substance abuse. Such disorders must be treated medically and through counseling along with the drug abuse. Substance abuse counselors often assist clients inside a group setting and offer individual services too. They may counsel those who struggle with one or multiple addictions involving drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, overeating etc. Substance abuse counselors help their clients to recognize and address certain behavioral disorders contributing to addiction and to establish coping strategies and individualized recovery programs to the treatments for addictive tendencies.

Use and abuse of substances may begin in childhood or teenage years. Substance abuse prevention programs that seek to increase communication between parents and their children, teach resistance skills, and correct children’s misperceptions about cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and the consequences of their use are essential to reduce the risk of substance abuse among teenagers.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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