Everything You Need To Know About Addiction

Drugs and alcohol are powerful substances—struggling with them is not a sign of weakness

February 20, 2024

Addiction is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or a moral failure. It is a common condition that affects millions of people of all ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups. And while there is no one cause of addiction, there is hope—it can be treated effectively.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • The truth about drug and alcohol addiction
  • How to recognize if you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction
  • How to successfully treat and manage substance misuse

Yes, Addiction Is A Mental Illness

Addiction is a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function, currently affecting the lives of nearly 10% of adults in the United States.

Addiction swaps the everyday desires of the brain with those of the drug you are addicted to. You no longer enjoy what other people do as the brain changes. The changes start with recognition of pleasure and end with a drive toward compulsive behavior to fulfill that desire. Sometimes, when you try quitting, the addiction weakens your ability to manage impulses.

Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain. This influence manifests in three ways:

  • Craving for the object of addiction
  • Loss of control over its use
  • Continuing involvement with it despite problems it causes

With drug and alcohol addiction, substances hijack the brain’s reward system. This could lead to developing a physical dependence on substances.

Some people develop unpleasant and sometimes dangerous physical symptoms when they stop or decrease substance use. These changes result in a weakened ability to control impulses despite the negative consequences.

Substance misuse can lead to serious physical, emotional, and social problems. For example, continued use of drugs or alcohol can lead to job loss, broken relationships, and other failures. These problems often increase stress and anxiety.

Organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Psychiatric Association consider substance use disorders a mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, also recognizes substance use disorders as a mental illness.

Watch Now!

Learn more about how family plays an important role in addiction intervention and recovery

Addiction Rarely Acts Alone

Stress, anxiety, trauma, and depression can also result in the development of substance use disorders, which can create new challenges for your mental health.

Studies show that many of those struggling with other mental illnesses also struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Many individuals with a substance use disorder (SUD) also have other mental health symptoms or disorders. This is known as having a dual diagnosis.

A 2021 national survey highlights the rate of substance use disorders and coexisting mental illnesses in adults.

Among adults aged 18 or older in 2021:

  • 32.5% of adults had either a substance use disorder or other type of mental illness
  • 9.7% of adults specifically had a substance use disorder but no other type of mental illness
  • 7.6% of adults had both a substance use disorder and at least one other type of mental illness

The following have been known to co-occur with addiction:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders

Who Can Develop an Addiction? Anyone

It is possible for people of all ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups to develop addictions to alcohol or drugs. Although some groups are more vulnerable than others, there are several factors that contribute to the onset of addiction.


Research suggests that genes contribute to the risk of developing both a substance use disorder and other mental illnesses. Environmental factors, such as stress or trauma, can cause genetic changes. We also know that some genes are passed down in families. These changes may contribute to the development of a substance use disorder or other mental illnesses.

Mental Illness

Research shows that some mental illnesses increase risk for addiction disorders.

For instance, someone struggling with mental illness may get into drugs in an attempt to feel better. Though it may seem to alleviate immediate pain, the use of drugs and alcohol often has devastating, long-term effects. Continued drug use causes the brain to increase the rewarding effects, sometimes resulting in the development of other addictions.

People who struggle with an anxiety or mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are twice as likely to also use drugs or alcohol. Those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), antisocial personality disorder and conduct disorder, psychotic disorders—such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder—or OCD are also more likely to misuse substances.

Wayne’s Journey to Recovery

Patient Wayne boxing

While serving in a high-stress, high-responsibility role as a corrections officer, Wayne developed a serious problem with alcohol, and he knew he needed help to overcome it. Learn more about his path to mental wellness.

Patient Wayne boxing

What Causes Addiction?

There is no single cause of addiction. However, a few factors can contribute to whether you may start using or misusing substances.

Peer Pressure

Your friends may encourage you to join them in using drugs. Many people succumb to peer pressure for fear of losing friends or a desire to fit in.


People may start using drugs or alcohol when they are available at school or home. In some cases, parents introduce their children to drugs. Children raised in a family where others are using drugs or alcohol may be at a higher risk to start using.

Life Events and Trauma

Financial problems, a bad breakup, or the death of a close friend or relative are some of the situations that can push you to seek relief or escape with drugs or alcohol.

Also, people exposed to high levels of stress (for example, a first responder or a member of the armed services) are susceptible to addiction. Research has found that 60-80% of people with PTSD also have substance use issues. People who experience PTSD may use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress or to relieve symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Childhood Experiences

Experiences during childhood can lead to physical and emotional difficulties, including addiction. Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse; neglect; witnessing violence; and parental separation or divorce are factors that can impact your use of substances.

How To Know if Someone Is Struggling With Addiction

People with substance use disorders can experience both a physical dependence on the substance and a psychological dependence. While some of these signs may appear almost immediately, depending on the substance, some are gradual and will appear over time.

Not all of these symptoms will present themselves when someone is struggling with an addiction. Any of these signs, though, may indicate consistent substance use.

Some of the physical signs of addiction:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Fluctuations in weight, either gain or loss, or irregular eating habits or changes in appetite
  • Extreme lethargy or extreme hyperactivity
  • Poor personal hygiene or decreased grooming habits, including showering, washing hair, or brushing teeth
  • Changes in eyes, including constricted pupils or bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in skin, including jaundice, acne, paleness, scabs, and bruises
  • Tremors or seizures
  • Poor physical coordination

Some of the psychological signs of addiction:

  • Changes in personality, typically becoming moodier or experiencing mood swings
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies
  • Becoming increasingly withdrawn and secretive
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts

If a friend or loved one also exhibits any of these, they could be signs that the individual is struggling and needs assistance:

  • Drunk most of the time
  • Actively talking about taking or seeking out drugs
  • Taking drugs for fun
  • Actions or behaviors that result in frequent collisions with legal authorities
  • Poor performance in the workplace
  • Financial troubles
  • Ignoring or neglecting responsibilities altogether

If you or someone you know shows these signs and symptoms, it may be a sign of a substance use disorder—and the need for help from a doctor or counselor.

How Addiction Is Diagnosed and Treated

The good news is that it’s possible to receive both effective and safe treatment for addiction. Both medication and therapy have been very successful in treating substance use disorders.

Treatment not only helps manage addictive behaviors but also helps minimize the chance of relapsing in the future. It’s also never too late to seek treatment—individualized care plans are created for each patient, ensuring that your exact needs are met. No two patients are alike.

Stock photo of woman in despair in front of pile of pills

Addiction is a disorder of the brain, and with proper treatment, people who struggle with drug or alcohol misuse can pave a path to recovery

To diagnose addiction, a licensed treater will ask you about the nature of your substance use and learn how substance use is affecting your life. They may ask about other factors, such as your personal and family history as well as identifying any coexisting mental health issues. Honesty and family involvement in this process are crucial to receiving an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment for addiction and co-occurring disorders may include a combination of medications, family therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), exposure and response prevention therapy, and group therapy approaches. Mindfulness-based therapies are also becoming more commonplace.

Before embarking on any treatment journey, it is important to contact your health care providers to seek help that is best suited for your condition or a loved one.

Treatments vary depending on the type of disorder. Here are some of the more common treatment and support options.

Detox/Inpatient Care

This form of short-term treatment is for people who are physically dependent on drugs or alcohol.

Detox may be necessary for people withdrawing from alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates, as the withdrawal symptoms can sometimes be fatal without medical supervision. Medical professionals monitor patients to ensure a safe and comfortable withdrawal.

Residential Treatment

This type of treatment involves a 14- to 30-day stay at a treatment center like McLean. This type of treatment can be incredibly helpful for people who prefer to be in a structured, drug-free environment, removed from temptations or triggers.

Dual diagnosis programs specialize in helping people who struggle with both addiction and other mental health issues. Treatment may involve group, individual, and family therapy, and medication management.

Partial Hospital or Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient and partial hospital (day) programs offer less structure because patients do not live at the facility. Patients return home each day after treatment is complete.

Treatment may consist of medication, talk therapy, or both. Sessions can occur one or more times per week. Those who are in stable recovery may attend therapy less frequently.

Mutual Help Programs

12-step fellowship programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), offer meetings in a supportive and encouraging environment. They are free to join and widely available. Other programs, such as SMART Recovery, also provide tools for recovery and social support.

Addiction in Teens

Teen dancing in the street

What can start as a coping mechanism, stress reliever, or social lubricant for adolescents can turn into a dangerous habit. Learn how to see the signs of adolescent misuse of drugs and alcohol.

Teen dancing in the street

Treating Co-Occurring Conditions Together

According to R. Kathryn McHugh, PhD, chief of psychology at McLean Hospital, the traditional care model for co-occurring disorders is perhaps the biggest hurdle to effective treatment.

Historically, mental health and substance use treatments are handled separately by different specialists, each focusing on one area and not always having knowledge about both.

This immediately puts patients at a disadvantage. It can be inefficient and inconvenient. More importantly, the patients get care for addiction and the coexisting condition(s) at separate times. The gold standard is to take care of them at the same time.

Often, mental health providers suggest that patients get sober first and then come back to get their other mental health condition(s) treated.

“That isn’t a good idea. Those people often don’t come back,” says McHugh. “They struggle to achieve any extended sobriety, and/or their overall condition worsens because their mood or anxiety disorder isn’t being treated.”

Aside from helping to ensure that patients get care for all of their conditions, there is another compelling reason to get concurrent and integrated care—complexity.

“The treatment facilities that do this really well are those that treat all of a patient’s conditions at the same time and in the same place, preferably with the same provider or team of providers,” says McHugh.

This is ideal “because it’s impossible for us to pull out one disorder, pull out the other one, and treat them as two distinct entities—because they never are. There is a lot of overlap and a lot of intersection between symptoms.”

Co-occurring disorders can also feed off each other. McHugh explains that when the symptoms of one condition improve, the symptoms of the other(s) often worsen.

“For some people, it can almost feel like whack-a-mole. You get one thing under control, and the other pops back up. If someone’s drinking, that can mask the anxiety. But if you stop drinking, the anxiety comes back up. That’s why it’s so hard to treat one and then the other.”

Specialized Treatments for Co-Occurring Disorders

When addressed together, there are highly effective evidence-based treatments for dual diagnosis.

In addition to a range of general behavioral therapies and mindfulness-based therapies, there are specialized approaches to treat coexisting disorders.

Integrated group therapy (IGT), developed by McLean’s Roger D. Weiss, MD, is one such treatment model with demonstrated success. IGT simultaneously focuses on treating substance use and bipolar disorder. Several randomized clinical trials have shown that this is a highly effective treatment.

Another successful treatment approach is called concurrent treatment of PTSD and substance use disorders using prolonged exposure (COPE). This CBT technique combines prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD with relapse prevention for addiction.

While these and other specialized treatments are effective, McHugh says that developing generalized therapies to treat broader combinations of co-occurring disorders is now a major goal for those in her field.

“When you think of the number of condition pairings out there, the list gets very long,” she says. “There’s a lot of interest in developing transdiagnostic treatments to increase access to effective care.”

Transdiagnostic treatments focus on common features of different disorders, such as difficulty managing negative emotions or impulsiveness. This approach can reduce the training burden for treatment providers. It may also be a better fit for people with coexisting disorders, who often have more than two conditions.

Medications are also a part of standard care for co-occurring diagnoses. This may include medications targeting both the addiction and the other psychiatric disorder, such as combining antidepressant medications with alcohol use disorder medications.

McLean Is Here To Help

Patient talks to clinician outside

McLean is a leader in addiction treatment. Let us help you or a loved one. Call us today at 978.464.2331, and we’ll help you find the treatment option that’s right for you.

Patient talks to clinician outside

Recovery Is Possible—There Is Hope!

In addition to medications and therapy, successful recovery involves rebuilding a meaningful life. This process can be slow and challenging as you rebuild family and social relationships and begin to expand your role in your community. Unfortunately, the process can be difficult for those struggling with homelessness, financial instability, lack of social supports, or limited education.

Moreover, the recovery process can involve investing in new interests and providing meaning to your life. A successful recovery from addiction can include understanding that your problems usually are temporary. Recovery also involves acknowledging that life is not always supposed to be pleasurable.

An important step in recovery is having personal agency. There are many ways to heal by just being part of better things. By diversifying interests and goals, identifying and working through drawbacks, and remembering life has its highs and lows, recovery can be longer-lasting.

Individuals are encouraged to focus on positive behaviors like:

  • Creating realistic goals
  • Being flexible
  • Having a gratitude list
  • Assisting people
  • Working to transform your mindset for the better

Whether practicing these behaviors alone or with loved ones, positivity can be a powerful—and successful—component of the recovery process.

Addiction: How It Affects the Brain

Addiction is fueled by a loss of control over the use of a substance as the brain goes through a series of changes, starting with the recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behavior.

Understanding the Pleasure Principle

Whether it is a psychoactive drug, sexual experience, or any other form of pleasure, the brain perceives them all in the same way. It stimulates dopamine release from the brain’s pleasure center.

The difference comes in the speed, intensity, and reliability with which the brain releases dopamine. Typically, drugs of abuse stimulate a high dopamine surge. That’s why they will always be so addictive. The high levels create an alternative route to the brain’s reward system, which causes dopamine to flood the brain—and ultimately intensifies addiction.

Overloading the Reward Circuit

Until recently, scientists thought the only cause of addiction was pleasure. But recent studies show that dopamine affects the brain’s learning process and the ability to retain things in memory.

Dopamine takes over the control of the brain’s reward learning process when it interacts with glutamate—like dopamine, another neurotransmitter. This learning process is essential to encouraging necessary body activities, like eating and sex, that are needed for survival.

Again, since the brain’s reward circuit includes the parts that boost motivation, dopamine does the same—but with an overload of motivation.

Continued consumption of the drugs causes the brain to stimulate the body into a deep desire to consume more drugs.

The Brain Develops Tolerance

With time, the brain gets used to the substances, which translates to less pleasure. Naturally, we know pleasure comes after some hard work. But these drugs overwhelm the brain, and in turn, the brain either releases less dopamine or gets rid of its receptors.

That means that dopamine’s effect on the reward center reduces significantly. So, even if you were addicted, you no longer experience the pleasure you were used to. And that can drive someone to consume even more quantities to reach the dopamine “high” levels that can cause significant pleasure.

Relief Is Short-Lived

Most substances only provide fleeting relief. For instance, if you have pain or stress, taking opioids could result in temporary painlessness. If you are experiencing negative moods, anxiety, or sadness, taking stimulants like cocaine also provides short-term fulfillment.

Despite short-term respite, the long-term effects of an addiction are quite detrimental. But even so, the intense urge for that relief can cause you to ignore the risk.

Compulsion Becomes the Driving Force

Even if you hardly experience pleasure from drugs, the memory created from past use compels the desire to recreate that pleasure. This compulsion causes part of your brain—the hippocampus and amygdala—to start developing thoughts about getting the drug again, which grows into intense desire when encountering an environment with those drugs.

This desire to relapse even after years of sobriety, especially when you encounter tempting environments, results from this conditional learning.

docter with tablet talking to man in blue shirt

Do People Really Experience Withdrawal From Drugs and Alcohol?

When entering treatment, it’s possible for a person to experience withdrawal. Withdrawal is the process of quitting a substance and can vary in severity.

Physical and psychological dependencies can also appear during withdrawal. Your body gets used to drugs and alcohol such that if you don’t use them for a while, physical symptoms begin to show up. You have to take the drugs to maintain your “normal” self. Psychological dependence stems from the mind. You believe you cannot survive without using—for example, it’s impossible to be social or fun without drinking alcohol.

When you have a psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol, you may also come to believe that you need to use the substance all the time. You believe you cannot survive without drugs.

Physical dependence relates to when your body has become used to having drugs, and therefore, you need to take drugs to even feel normal. For example, if you have an addiction to a depressant like alcohol, you may feel restless, agitated, or have tremors when you do not drink. Some substances, like opioids, can cause sweating or nausea during withdrawal. Withdrawal from cocaine and marijuana often produces emotional symptoms, ranging from irritability to depression.

Withdrawal symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on:

  • How long you have been using
  • What drug(s) you are taking
  • Age
  • Physical health
  • Psychological characteristics
  • Method of withdrawal

Sometimes, withdrawal may be fatal—especially if you are in a critical condition. It’s strongly encouraged to reach out to your health care providers if you are considering withdrawing or seeking treatment for addiction.

When going through withdrawal, it’s possible for a variety of responses to occur.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms vary from one individual to another—depending on the level of addiction and the type of drug. The symptoms are simply how you’d feel when you no longer use them. Withdrawing from cocaine, for instance, will make you feel depressed, agitated, and tired.


Since the brain is used to the drugs, it will always long to have that “normal” state. Sometimes the cravings will be too strong to the point that you have to use them. Therefore, to effectively manage the cravings, you must engage yourself in constructive activities like reading, exercising, learning new skills, and other active engagements.

Withdrawal May Take Longer Than Expected

Even though you will quit within a short period, the effects will, of course, last longer, depending on the factors we mentioned earlier.

Withdrawal involves four main steps:


Tolerance is a state where the body’s reaction to the drug goes down as you continue using it. That means, to achieve the same effect as before, you have to consume larger quantities of the drug. Note that tolerance doesn’t imply extreme addiction—it is the body becoming less sensitive to the substance.


Simply put, it involves stopping the consumption of drugs or alcohol.

Acute Withdrawal

Acute withdrawal occurs in the first couple of days after withdrawal, and it applies to alcohol as well as prescription and illicit drugs. As mentioned earlier, all effects are different. That means the length within which these symptoms happen is also different.

Post-Acute Withdrawal

As the name suggests, this is the stage that comes right after acute withdrawal. It’s also called protracted withdrawal, and it involves a series of severe, persistent symptoms that last even after the addiction is over. However, this is a crucial stage that all people with substance use disorders go through in their early stages of withdrawal. The brain is usually in the reorientation process to recover from the changes it underwent during the active addiction stage.

Substance Use Detox

Illustration of head with scrambled string and shoulder disintegrating

Detox is the first step in treating substance use disorders—and can be the difference between life and death

Illustration of head with scrambled string and shoulder disintegrating

What Is an Intervention?

An intervention can be an effective way to help someone with a substance addiction. Through an intervention, family members and friends come together for the sake of the individual who is struggling with drug or alcohol misuse, pushing for them to get the treatment they need to address their condition.

Interventions can also help family and friends of the person with a substance use disorder. Loved ones can explain how they have been damaged by the individual’s words and actions.

Forcing the person to confront the consequences of their behavior can lead to better outcomes for all involved.

Interventions Can Be Challenging

Despite the benefits, many people hold back from staging an intervention.

The potentially explosive nature of the confrontation prevents people from starting the conversation. Emotions may run high. Secrets can be revealed. Feelings of shame, anger, and hopelessness may rise to the surface.

Some avoid staging an intervention because they are convinced it will not work. They think that only people who are fully motivated will benefit from treatment.

A different but common theme is that they have spoken with their loved one dozens of times, but it hasn’t resulted in change. “They never will accept help, so why try?” they may say.

It’s important to take the hard but needed steps to protect the health and safety of the person with the addiction, and those around them too.

Don’t Wait Until They Hit Rock Bottom

One widely held view is that an intervention is only for those who have hit rock bottom, a point of pain where there is nowhere to go but up.

At this point, some believe, the person will clearly understand the need for treatment and eagerly seek help. An intervention will just confirm and encourage the promising path they have now decided to take.

This belief is not only wrong but also dangerous.

Experts know that rock bottom looks different for everyone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, even when someone does reach what seems like the lowest low—maybe following an overdose or a drunk driving accident—they will probably continue to misuse substances and refuse help.

Family members and friends should not wait for the most desperate situation to step in and confront their loved one. Don’t wait until it’s too late to help.

Not Every Intervention Is a Fight

Many avoid holding interventions because they are convinced it will be an angry confrontation, and they do not want the person to feel worse than they already do. That is not surprising, because many people who face interventions say they felt ambushed. They feel emotionally abused, shamed, and insulted.

But an intervention does not have to resemble a firing squad. In fact, the most effective interventions are the ones in which the friends and family members speak to their loved one in calm, clear terms.

Make sure the intervention does not become a negotiation, a trial, or an airing of grievances. Present issues logically and offer serious solutions. Also, be sure to make a distinction between the individual as a person and the addiction.

When an intervention is planned with care and offered with understanding, the individual is more likely to be open to treatment.

The Role of an Interventionist

Families and friends can reach out to professionals for assistance in planning and holding an intervention. In fact, there are trained interventionists who can take you through the process to increase the chance of success.

As an important first step, an interventionist will try to get the family to come to a consensus about the need for a meeting and what the meeting should look like.

“If only part of the family is on board, I will try and intervene with the other part of the family,” explains interventionist Brad Warner, LCSW-R. “Usually they will come along, but if they are immovable, then we will come up with a plan that doesn’t include them.”

Leading up to an intervention, Warner says that he works with individual family members to “get them to change their thinking and perceptions of the problem.”

This work, he explains, “includes a lot of education about addiction, mental illness, treatment, and interventions.”

He also holds an extensive pre-intervention meeting the night before the intervention with all the participants. “We discuss all of the information about the person, who often has kept certain people in the dark,” says Warner. This process helps keep the meeting focused and provides insight and comfort for family members.

Including an interventionist in the process can be beneficial for many reasons.

The introduction of an unbiased, helpful person may help convince the person the intervention is for that it should be taken seriously and that their loved ones aren’t overreacting.

In addition, having a professional help plan and hold an intervention can make it more likely to run smoothly and have a positive outcome: getting a loved one the help they need.

Listen Now!

Charles talks about early life trauma, addiction, and acceptance in this emotional episode of McLean’s podcast, “Mindful Things”

Understanding Truths—and Myths—About Addiction

To better understand the condition, it’s important to know what addiction is—and what it isn’t.

Truth: Addiction Is Not Caused by Poor Morals or Willpower

In the 1930s, when researchers first began to investigate what caused addictive behavior, they believed that people who developed addictions were morally flawed or lacking in willpower. “Addicts” were punished. Or they were encouraged to muster the strength to break their habits.

Over the years, we have learned much more, and today, we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. With addiction, the brain goes through a series of changes—beginning with recognition of pleasure and ending with a drive toward compulsive behavior. These advances in science have improved diagnoses and treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs).

Truth: Addiction Is Not a Choice That Someone Can Just Get Over or Stop Doing

Many have fought back against the notion that people with addiction are deliberately and maliciously engaging in substance misuse. In truth, those with addiction disorders have an illness.

Misconceptions, stigma, and hurtful language often discourage those who need help from reaching out. As our understanding of SUDs improves, the myths and misconceptions will go away. As a result, more and more individuals will seek treatment.

Truth: Addiction Is Treatable

Several safe, effective, and inexpensive treatments are available for addiction. Treatments vary depending on the type of substance use disorder.

Effective medications are available for alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, and nicotine use disorder. Often, psychosocial treatments are combined with medication. Treatment can be beneficial at any point in an addiction and can be tailored to a person’s needs.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 978.464.2331 to learn more about treatment options.

In His Own Words

Bald man smiling while outdoors

As a participant in McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign, Chris tells his story of his struggle with addiction and how getting the help he needed inspired him to fight stigma by talking openly about his recovery.

Bald man smiling while outdoors

Facts About Drug and Alcohol Dependence

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s survey in 2018, about 20.3 million individuals struggled with SUDs between 2017 and 2018.

Another study from 2014 shows that 7.9 million people in the U.S. developed SUD and other mental illnesses simultaneously. Half of that population were men, even though the gender difference has been reducing since then.

Substance use disorder is a common mental condition that affects millions of people. In 2011, SAMHSA reported that an estimated 22.1 million persons, or 8.9% of the U.S. population aged 12 or older, would meet the diagnostic criteria for SUD.

SAMHSA broke down the percentage of users who will develop dependence on particular drugs:

  • 8-9% of marijuana users
  • 12-13% of alcohol users
  • 15-16% of cocaine users
  • 67% of nicotine users

Alcohol is one of the most popular—and most misused—substances in America. Statistics from the 2018 U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 139.8 million Americans over age 12 drank during the past month. Of that group, 67.1 million were binge drinkers, while 16.6 million drank too much over the last month. Also, about 14.8 million of that group struggled with an alcohol-related disorder.

SAMHSA researched Americans above 12 years old on the use of tobacco and discovered that 27.4% of the American population (69.6 million) used tobacco within the last 30 days of their survey. While tobacco consumption is dropping, NSDUH’s 2018 statistics on tobacco consumption report that 58.8 million Americans were current cigarette smokers.

The CDC’s report in the National Youth Tobacco Survey of 2018 recorded a 78% and 49% rise in e-cigarette smoking amongst high school and middle school students.

Other 2018 NSDUH statistics show the prevalence of heroin and opioid use in the U.S. According to the study, about 808,000 Americans used heroin between 2017 and 2018, and about 2 million Americans struggled with an opioid-related disorder.

About 15% of Americans (43.5 million) above 12 years old smoked marijuana in 2017, according to NSDUH’s 2018 statistics. The report also indicates that 4.4 million of those who used the drug struggled with at least one SUD. Marijuana has short-term side effects like hallucinations and short reaction time. Long-term side effects include impaired judgment and memory loss.

Use of other drugs is on the rise, according to NSDUH. In 2018 alone, about 1.9 million Americans consumed methamphetamine, out of which 1.1 million turned out to have the drug’s related disorder, the group reported. Since 2011, methamphetamine use has quadrupled.

Also, NSDUH found that approximately 5.5 million Americans admitted to using cocaine during 2018. A 2018 CDC report stated that cocaine consumption increased by almost a third between 2016 and 2017.

Want More Info?

Looking for even more information about substance addiction? You may find these resources helpful.

Interesting Articles and Videos and More

Learn more about addiction and what you can do if you or a loved one is displaying signs of a substance use disorder.

Helpful Links

These organizations may also have useful information:

Alcoholics Anonymous
AA is an international organization of people who have had a drinking problem. They offer self-help groups, educational resources, and support for those who struggle with alcohol addiction and the path to recovery.

American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
An academic society organization, AAAP has an interest in preventing and treating substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.

Learn to Cope
This nonprofit support network offers education, resources, peer support, and hope for parents and family members coping with a loved one addicted to opiates or other drugs.

Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline
Provides free and anonymous information and referral for alcohol and other drug abuse problems and related concerns. The helpline is committed to linking consumers with comprehensive, accurate, and current information about treatment and prevention services throughout Massachusetts.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Part of the National Institutes of Health, NIAAA supports and conducts research on the impact of alcohol use on human health and well-being.

National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA supports scientific research on drug use and its consequences. NIDA is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Partnership to End Drug Addiction
Partners with families, professionals, and other organizations to end addiction in the United States. They take a public health approach, rooted in science and compassion.

SMART Recovery
This abstinence-oriented, nonprofit organization for people with addictive problems offers self-empowering, free mutual support meetings focused on ideas and techniques to help an individual change their life from one that is self-destructive and unhappy to one that is constructive and satisfying.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA works to reduce the impact of substance addiction and mental illness on America’s communities.

A comprehensive list of available 12-step programs as well as the tools to identify the most appropriate. This site has in-depth information about 12-step programs, how they work, and how to find one near you.

Books About Addiction

Book cover - Complete Family Guide to Addiction

The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself
by Thomas F. Harrison and Hilary S. Connery
(Guildford Press, 2019)

Book cover - Treating Women With Substance Use Disorders

Treating Women With Substance Use Disorders: The Women’s Recovery Group Manual
by Shelly F. Greenfield
(Guilford Press, 2016)

Book cover - Integrated Group Therapy

Integrated Group Therapy for Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse
by Roger D. Weiss, MD, and Hilary S. Connery, MD, PhD
(Guilford Press, 2011)

Book cover - Women and Addiction

Women & Addiction: A Comprehensive Handbook
by Kathleen T. Brady, Sudie E. Back, and Shelly F. Greenfield, editors
(Guilford Press, 2009)