Drug and alcohol addiction is complex, with no clear smoking gun of a cause.Addiction is chronic, and it’s distinguished by seeking and using the substance in question, in compulsive and out-of-control ways, despite the harmful effects. It also affects the brain’s reward centers, making it harder for some individuals to easily give up use.
The longer a substance is taken, the more likely it’ll impact learning, judgment, memory and how someone handles stress.Individual groups face their own unique challenges, too. College students may partake due to social or academic pressures. LGTBQ+ folks may take drugs to dull the pains of experiencing homophobia or transphobia. Women may ingest substances to lose weight.
As a result, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t necessarily address all needs. Fortunately, overcoming addiction can be less burdensome with better addiction resources that better meet individual needs.
Help with Addiction
One good thing about recent health care legislation is the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. It requires insurance coverage for mental health or substance use disorders that is comparable to general medical coverage.Equal doesn’t always mean better, and not all companies are required to follow it — plans for employers who have 50 or fewer employees, for example, are exempt — but generally it makes mental health and substance abuse services more accessible to most, if not all.
For those beginning their hunt for care, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal clearinghouse of information, offers a search option for treatment seekers. Site visitors can focus on location, services, specialties and more. It’s a good start when exploring what’s out there.A wealth of peer-led support groups are available to anyone seeking sobriety, both in the form of local addiction groups and online options. Twelve-step organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Al-Anon, and Narcotics Anonymous are plentiful.
People who prefer a more science-based approach can direct their attention toward options such as SMART Recovery.During COVID-19 slowdowns and shutdowns, many groups are using digital platforms such as Zoom or Google Hangouts to keep members connected and uninfected.
Adolescents face unique needs and concerns in terms of drug and alcohol consumption. Brains are still developing into a person’s mid-twenties. Substance use affects the brain areas that regulate decision-making, judgment, planning, and self-control. Teens, with their still-forming brains, are even more impacted.Often drug use is connected with co-occurring disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct issues, depression, or anxiety as a form of self-medication.
Vaping has been a more recent concern among high schoolers. As many as one in four 10th graders and one in three 12th graders admitted to vaping nicotine in the past month, according to the 2019 Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey.
The reasons vary. Young people are experimenting. They like the flavor. They think it’s fun to smoke with friends.Vaping marijuana isn’t as common, but use is up. An estimated 7% to 12.6% of 10th graders and 7.5% to 14% of 12th graders say they’ve vaped cannabis.
In recent years alcohol consumption has trended downward. Opioid use also is dropping, and consumption of stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine (meth) remain stable or on the decline.
Reasons for use vary:
- To feel like they fit in.
- To ease pain, depression, stress, or anxiety.
- To try and enhance performance, either for sports (steroids) or academics (stimulants).
- To experiment.
- To feel grown up.
To learn more about how to find help for teens, consider these resources as starting points:
- Get Smart About Drugs. This Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) site has information that’s geared more toward parents, educators, and caregivers.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. This site has educational resources for teens, parents, and teachers, links to information on fighting stress, real-life stories, emerging trends, and more.
- Youth.gov. This government website includes data, information on finding or funding prevention programs, warning signs, risk factors, and more.
College and University
College students are out of the shadows of parental supervision for the first time in their lives. While that can be exhilarating, it can also open the gates toward substance use.Alcohol is especially problematic, since it’s the social lubricant of many a student scene. In 2014, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 5.4 million (60.1%) of full-time college students drank alcohol within the past month.
More than half of that group (39%, or 3.5 million) engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks in about two hours for males, four drinks or more for females), and 13.2% (1.2 million) drank heavily.College students are also more likely to mix alcohol with energy drinks. The caffeine can block the depressant effects of alcohol. (It’s a myth that caffeine sobers a person up.)
As a result, drinkers may feel more alert, drink more, and put themselves at greater risk of alcohol-linked dangers such as driving under the influence or having unprotected sex.While alcohol may be the lead vice, it’s not the only one. One in five students said they’ve used an illicit drug or have used a legal drug illicitly in the past 30 days. That can include marijuana (depending on state law), hallucinogens, cocaine, prescription painkillers, stimulants, inhalants, methamphetamine (meth), or heroin.
Some students take stimulant drugs such as Adderall to help them study. There’s no evidence that the drug helps in that regard, but the myth persists.
To learn more, visit:
- Campus Drug Prevention. This DEA website has information on drugs, research, federal and local resources, fact sheets, and links to learn more about substance misuse or how to find help.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. This site is run by the National Institutes of Health and has information on substance use in college, trends, research, publications, tool kits, and more.
For most, illicit drug use tapers as a person exits early adulthood. People ages 65 and up who misuse substances aren’t unicorns, however. For 2014, an estimated 978,000 older adults had some kind of alcohol use disorder and another 161,000 had an illicit drug use disorder. With an aging population, the numbers are projected to rise.
Alcohol is the most abused substance, followed by opioids. While the occasional glass of wine may be good for the heart, abuse can fast track hypertension, heart attack, and stroke dangers. With age comes wisdom, but it also means alcohol isn’t processed as efficiently, so drinks will hit harder.
Not only may the effects be felt more strongly, but it can interact with medications for other co-occurring conditions. Emergency room visits linked to substance misuse or abuse have been linked to pain relievers (both prescription or nonprescription), narcotics, benzodiazepines (benzos), or using alcohol with other drugs.
Depending on a senior citizen’s situation, they may prefer to attend recovery programs that are more catered to their specific needs.
For older generations, having a mental illness such as depression or addiction was often seen as a personal failing, so they may be reluctant to speak freely about such topics.
Some older adults have other comorbidities such as high blood pressure or chronic pain or need the aid of a wheelchair or walker. Some simply might feel that their values do not align with younger recovery members.
Many state government websites have information and resources on recovery programs, as well as departments specifically dedicated to the needs of the aging population.
Specialized treatment programs targeted at specific groups have shown better outcomes. That said, not a huge amount of facilities offer help that is explicitly geared toward sexual minorities’ unique needs and challenges, since many clients in those populations have struggled with addiction as well as homophobia or transphobia, family turmoil or exclusion, violence, and social isolation.
Compared to the general population, LGBTQ+ people are more prone to use or abuse alcohol or drugs, begin use earlier in life, as well as to drink more heavily later into life.
A National Survey on Drug Use and Health survey from 2015 found that 39.1% of adults who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual admitted to illegal drug use that year, compared to 17.1% of heterosexual adults who also admitted to taking illicit substances during the same period of time.
Compared to heterosexuals, LGBTQ+ clients are more likely to have co-occurring conditions such as depression or eating disorders, and be more prone to self-harm or consider suicide.
In some cases, LGBTQ+ persons might use methamphetamine, amyl nitrates, or other drugs to enhance their sex lives. The resulting lowered inhibitions and elevated libido can lead to unsafe sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Intravenous drug (IV) use may also make people more vulnerable to contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other health woes. Addiction treatment can help minimize such risks.
LGBTQ+-friendly treatment options can better help address sexual minorities’ unique challenges and make it more comfortable for them to open up about their struggles and experiences.
Consulting with one’s doctor or any trusted medical professional can help too. Many colleges and universities have LGBTQ+ organizations. Those can be a great resource.
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has a listing of health services for LGBTQ+ populations, including hotlines, referral services, and health clinics by state and city. Other resources include:
- Gay and Sober. Allows members of the LGBTQ+ population to search for 12-step meetings in their areas.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery. LifeRing is a secular nonprofit organization of peer-run recovery groups. It assists not only people who have a substance use disorder, but also partners, family, and friends. Self-empowerment is the goal. Meetings are held in person and online.
- Refuge Recovery. This secular organization incorporates the teachings of Buddha as its members work to heal addiction and overcome the suffering that addiction causes. Meetings are held both in person and online.
Neither LifeRing nor Refuge Recovery are LGBTQ+ exclusive, but advocacy groups frequently cite them as friendly resources.
Men and women each face their own challenges when it comes to substance use.
Men are more likely than women to use virtually any kind of illicit drug. The result is more emergency visits and overdose deaths.
Adult men statistically have twice the rates of substance use addiction as adult women. Rehabilitation centers tend to have more male clients. Most treatment plans and research has been directed toward men, too, so the data is more geared toward them.
Gender expectations such as strength and independence may make some males more hesitant to seek help. They also may cope with more anger issues.
Being part of a culture or climate that encourages competition or aggression can create a reluctance to be forthright about feelings, in fear of being seen as weak.
Establishing rapport, beginning with some neutral (non drug-related) topics, and making the process more goal-oriented may increase participation and engagement. Emphasizing choice and reframing treatment as a move rooted in strength may also help.
Traditional 12-step organizations such as AA may be quite effective, or for a more secular approach, options such as SMART Recovery may be preferred in terms of peer-support groups. SAMHSA’s treatment locator has a wealth of resources for sobriety seekers.
Substance use affects women on different levels.
Socially, for a long time, people frowned upon — and in some case, still frown upon — women who drink or use drugs, especially at levels deemed unbecoming for the fairer sex.
That kind of thinking affects how people perceive and judge women, but the real difference is biology. Women may be able to keep up with men on many things, but factors such as hormone levels and a lower body weight (on average) means drugs and alcohol affect women more rapidly and more intensely.
Biology also causes the craving and relapse phases of the addiction cycle to hit ladies harder. As a result. they can grow dependent on a substance more quickly.
Pregnancy adds complications, as well, in that it can affect the health of the fetus. (Which further impacts how society views women with substance use disorders.)
Because women are tasked more with raising their children, they also may struggle to find childcare when seeking treatment.
Women also may take substances to lose weight, battle fatigue, self-medicate, or manage pain. Intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and rape typically affect women more than men too. Life-altering events, such as divorce or the death of a partner or child, may lead them to substance abuse as well.
For women with a history of trauma or abuse, women-centered treatment can make a world of difference.
In terms of peer support, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step groups offer ladies-only meeting options.
Groups such as Women for Sobriety are for anyone identifying as female. It is a nonsecular organization, with a focus on personal growth and responsibility.
The stresses tied to deployment, combat exposure, injuries, and the military’s unique culture all can contribute to substance use problems.
In addition, there is a reluctance among some service members to seek help, due to their fears it would harm their military career. Screenings can find illicit substances, but drinking is not so frowned upon, so it’s a more common pastime or escape hatch for some personnel.
Pain management for injuries, or insufficient treatment for trauma — both have led to abuse of opioids and other sedatives. (Two-thirds of veterans have admitted to pain issues.)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicide risks are greater among active military and veterans as well.
Evidence has shown that intensive treatment — including for co-occurring disorders — and aftercare can be helpful to veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has resources for military (both active and retired) seeking help for substance use, self-help, and information and support.
When seeking a rehabilitation facility, the single best thing is to find a center that uses proven therapies performed by a staff that is certified and experienced in treating addiction.
When seeking treatment, it’s also important to locate avenues that fit with your lifestyle and needs. It’s also important to a place or group that takes your unique circumstances into consideration when developing a recovery plan, whether you’re transgender, have co-occurring disorders, or are a retired veteran.
The state of Michigan has a list of 12 questions to consider when seeking treatment, questions which are worth asking no matter where you live. Asking questions about treatment can help you find it.
- drugabuse.gov – Understanding Drug Use and Addiction
- nami.org – What Is Mental Health Parity?
- samhsa.gov – Treatment Locator
- drugabuse.gov – Why (And How) to Resist Drug Use in College
- drugabuse.gov – What Are the Unique Needs of Adolescents With Substance Use Disorders?
- drugabuse.gov – Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends
- drugabuse.gov – Monitoring the Future: Annual Survey of Teen Drug Use
- drugabuse.gov – Why Do Adolescents Take Drugs?
- getsmartaboutdrugs.gov – Why Do Teens Use Drugs?
- drugabuse.gov – Helpful Links for Parents
- samhsa.gov – A Day in the Life of College Students Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts
- drugabuse.gov – Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2017
- cdc.gov – Alcohol and Caffeine
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Do College Students Improve Their Grades by Using Prescription Stimulants Nonmedically?
- samhsa.gov – A Day in the Life of Older Adults: Substance Use Facts
- harvard.edu – Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Substance Abuse Among Older Adults
- samhsa.gov – Substance Use Treatment for Older Adults
- samhsa.gov – Providing Services and Supports for Youth who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex or Two-Spirit
- drugabuse.gov – Substance Use and SUDs in LGBTQ* Populations
- cdc.gov – Substance Abuse
- cdc.gov – Health Services
- drugabuse.gov – Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Abuse
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Treatment Issues for Men
- health.harvard.edu – Addiction in Women
- womenforsobriety.org – Women for Sobriety
- surgeongeneral.gov – Facing Addiction: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health
- drugabuse.gov – What Is Drug Addiction?
- drugabuse.gov – Military Life and Substance Abuse
- drugabuse.gov – Substance Use and Military Life
- va.gov – PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans
- va.gov – Substance Use Treatment for Veterans
- michigan.gov – A Quick Guide to Finding Effective Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment
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