Substance abuse

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse involves the harmful use of alcohol, drugs or other substances. The term substance abuse is often used to refer to a mental health problem that is now contained within the diagnostic category of Substance Use Disorder. This category of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is what mental health professionals refer to for diagnosing problems people experience in relation to substance use.

The misuse of substances like drugs or alcohol is a complex issue, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between use and abuse. For example, drinking alcohol is, to some extent, considered socially acceptable. However, if your drinking is impacting on your health, relationships, or your ability to go about your work or schooling, help should be sought.

You don’t need to have a diagnosis to benefit from therapy for substance misuse, and you certainly shouldn’t wait until the problem is severe before seeking help. Any substance use that causes concern, leads to impairments in your functioning or causes you distress is worth discussing with a doctor or mental health professional. With the right help, it is possible to recover from substance abuse.

Types of substance abuse

Mental health professionals used to talk about substance use problems as falling into two categories: “abuse” and “dependence”. These two categories essentially differentiated the severity of the substance use problem. However, it is now thought of as a single mental health problem, called Substance Use Disorder, in which each person’s unique situation falls on a continuum of severity.

According to the DSM-5, the kinds of mind-altering substances involved in substance use problems can include:

Prevalence of substance abuse

Substance Use Disorder is relatively common. According to a survey of American adults, 10% of adults have had a drug use disorder at some point in their lives (1).

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health data shows that around 20 million adults had a substance use disorder in 2014. Of these, around 16 million had an alcohol use disorder, and 6 million had an illicit drug disorder (2).

Symptoms of substance abuse

The particular symptoms of substance use problems vary according to personal factors and the substance in question. However, if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms (as described by the DSM-5) you should seek help:

You don’t need to be experiencing all of these symptoms to have a substance-related problem. Any time that you are concerned about your substance use or feel that it’s causing problems in your life, it is worth seeking help from your doctor or mental health professional.

Treatment options for substance abuse

Recovery from substance abuse can be a challenging process. The process can be made even more complex if you are also experiencing other mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. This is not uncommon for people with substance use problems. It’s important to be assessed for these other aspects of your experience too so that the best treatment approach can be sought.

It is always best to seek guidance from a mental health professional or doctor when deciding on the best way to recover, as the best treatment approach will depend on your individual circumstances as well as the substance involved. Some suggestions include:

Therapy types for substance abuse

There are numerous effective treatments for substance abuse, and the particular approach taken depends on your individual circumstances and substance/s. Common evidence-based therapeutic approaches include:

What to look for in a therapist for substance abuse

Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

Sources and references