Substance abuse is associated with mental illnesses as an issue that plagues the lives of many. The term ‘substance abuse’ has been coined as a pattern of harmful use of any substance for mood-altering purposes. Such substances often include alcohol and drugs, illegal or otherwise.
Addictive drugs interact with the neurochemistry of the brain in order to produce feelings of euphoria by flooding the circuit with dopamine which is a neurotransmitter present in the regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviours. We are constantly producing dopamine in various levels as a reward for our day-to-day activities, however, over-stimulating the system with drugs produces effects that reinforce the behaviour of drug usage. Furthermore, our brain adapts to higher levels of dopamine and the levels of dopamine produced during other activities are no longer satisfactory, which is why more drugs are required to feel something. As one consumes more drugs, the brain grows accustomed to the levels of dopamine being released and hence requires even more drugs to experience the feeling of euphoria - much like any other addiction. As a result, the person becomes dependent on drugs and similar substances to attain a feeling of normalcy, and hence experiences withdrawal symptoms when they stop using these substances.
A majority of people who engage in substance abuse have also been diagnosed with various other mental illnesses and vice versa. In the United States, population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder. Over 60% of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness. The issue stems from them trying to escape the feelings of overwhelming sadness and numbness experienced by those who have mental illnesses as well as the baggage that comes along with living with a mental illness. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that anyone can develop a substance use disorder, even in the absence of a mental illness. Some addictions can begin as a misuse of prescription drugs while others can stem from an introduction to ‘party drugs’.
Substance abuse is notorious for having the ability to ruin one's life physically, emotionally, and socially. Health risks can include breathing difficulty, drowsiness, clamminess, or nausea. Uncontrollable dependence on substances can also affect a person’s ability to think clearly and make rational choices. They can turn aggressive and present harmful behaviours, especially if they run out of substances and seek more. This impacts their performance in professional settings and their relationships with people. They tend to lose their jobs, drop out of school, spend all their money acquiring these substances, and even end up homeless. Not to mention the criminal activity that is a consequence of substance abuse. The fatality of substance abuse can be a result of overdoses or alcohol poisoning as well as long term health impacts such as kidney and liver disease.
One can argue that the most dangerous aspect of drug abuse is the stigma surrounding it, which oftentimes restricts people from coming forward with their issues and seeking help. Many of the substances that are abused are illegal and hence there is a lingering fear of getting in trouble. Apart from that, society views the use of substances as recreational and experimental, especially among youth, often dismissing the reasons behind it. This gives off the impression that one is in control of their substance abuse and it is their own fault if it develops into a disorder, when in fact it is not.
The primary treatment approach for any substance use disorder is rehabilitation. If you are struggling with substance abuse, your first step should be to come forward to someone you trust. If that is not a possibility, there are helplines available for support (India De-Addiction Helpline: 1800-11-0031). Your journey to rehabilitation must begin in a rehabilitation centre, which can be found online or through a helpline, followed by support groups. If you can afford it, therapists and counsellors can help as well. If you know someone struggling with substance abuse, you must alleviate the stigma surrounding it, so they will be comfortable coming forward. You can help them find a rehab centre after which you must be fully supportive of the person’s recovery through their sobriety as well as their relapses. There are also support groups for family and friends of someone struggling with substance abuse.
Writer: Lara Nambisan
Illustration: Mercola, Joseph. “Meet the Sacklers: The Family That's Killing Millions.” Home - Nexus Newsfeed, 2017, nexusnewsfeed.com/article/human-rights/meet-the-sacklers-the-family-that-s-killing-millions.