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Finding Help for Drug Abuse: When Should You Get Help?

When Should I Seek Help?

When someone has a problem with drugs, the most common reaction is to start talking about addiction. However, addiction is only one end of a spectrum of substance use disorders. Drug abuse at any level is a behavioral disorder that can also be problematic both for the individual using drugs and for others.

It can be challenging to see drug abuse as a problem; some people may feel that because abuse is not necessarily addiction, treatment may not be necessary. However, abusing drugs can result in problems with physical, psychological, and social wellness that can have severe consequences for the individual, even if there is no addiction to the substance. At the same time, drug abuse can contribute to the development of addiction.

There is treatment available for drug abuse that has not developed into addiction. Understanding more about the nature of drug abuse and the options for treatment can help a person decide when it is time to get help to stop a drug abuse problem.

What Is Drug Abuse?

M_Matin_10_14_16-08607The specific elements of drug abuse are defined in different ways by different organizations, but at its simplest, drug abuse is a person’s continual use of an illicit substance or regular misuse of a prescribed or over-the-counter substance, even though the use may have a negative effect on that person’s physical, psychological, or social health and wellness.

Drug abuse, often referred to by specialists as substance use disorder, is a spectrum of behavioral disorders that range from casual or recreational drug abuse to physical dependence and addiction.

Drug abuse is preventable and treatable. While it may seem that addiction is the only type of substance use disorder that would require or be affected by treatment, drug abuse behaviors can also be treated, and people can develop skills to avoid current and future drug abuse. Intervention before drug abuse becomes more problematic can prevent many of the consequences of abuse, including addiction.

Drug abuse is a major problem in the United States. It also contributes to many other health and social problems, some of which include:

  • Intoxicated driving
  • A variety of physical illnesses and diseases
  • Contribution to or complications with other psychological disorders
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Risky physical and sexual behavior
  • Legal and financial problems
  • Problems with family and other relationships
  • Overdose
  • Suicide

Comparing Drug Abuse to Addiction

Drug Abuse Causes

Drug abuse is a complex issue, and the reasons that people begin to abuse drugs vary as much as the types of drugs that are abused. However, those reasons fall into several broader categories. These include:

  • Peer pressure or experimentation
  • Dealing with stress in relationships, at work, or at school
  • Issues in the person’s social life
  • Family history of drug abuse
  • Chaotic or otherwise problematic home life
  • Long-term use or misuse of certain medications
  • Co-occurrence of other mental health disorders

Some people are able to use certain drugs without a risk of abuse or addiction. For example, some people can consume alcohol moderately without developing substance use disorders. Other people, however, based on the above factors, may have a higher risk of addiction.

Drug abuse and addiction are similar, but there are some important differences. Addiction is a complex behavioral and physical disorder in which a person is unable to stop using a substance, and craves more of the substance, even when that substance has had a negative effect on the person’s life. Addiction means that the person is dependent on the substance, physically, psychologically, or both.

Abuse, on the other hand, while also considered a disorder, is more of a behavioral pattern in which a person takes or repeatedly uses a substance that may have a negative impact on the person. A person who abuses drugs may or may not have a physical or psychological dependence.

Over time, repeated or heavy drug abuse can lead to addiction through physically changing the brain and through behavioral conditioning. With some drugs, even one use may contribute to addiction. This is because drug abuse can cause changes in brain chemistry and hormonal functions, resulting in a tolerance to or dependence on that substance. These are the hallmarks of addiction.

People who are addicted to substances will continue to abuse those substances because of their dependence. While there is no cure for addiction, people who receive treatment can learn to manage their addictions, change their behaviors, and avoid continued drug abuse by implementing practices that encourage sobriety.

Available Treatment Options

There are a number of options for treating drug abuse as well as addiction. At the highest level, there is a contrast between inpatient and outpatient treatment. Whether inpatient or outpatient treatment is chosen might depend on the degree of drug abuse.

Treatment generally includes a range of therapies designed to help the person who is abusing or addicted to a substance learn to manage the desire to use the drug and achieve abstinence or sobriety.

Inpatient Treatment

Especially when drug abuse is connected to addiction, inpatient treatment is the most recommended as the type of treatment that is likely to result in long-term recovery. Also known as residential treatment, this type of program provides a community in which the person lives during treatment. Residential treatment allows for a fulltime, comprehensive program that can offer the various aspects of substance abuse treatment that are considered to provide the best chance at recovery. These include:

  • Medically assisted detox
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Support group involvement and counseling
  • Aftercare or post-treatment outpatient programs

The advantage of inpatient therapy is that it can provide round-the-clock observation and assistance to help a person manage the desire to continue substance-abusing behaviors while engaging in drug abuse education and behavioral therapy. For those whose daily interactions and relationships might involve excessive triggers for substance abuse, inpatient treatment is the best option.


Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment ranges from simple drug education to comprehensive services provided by a  qualified rehab facility in a similar manner to the inpatient services described above, but without the residential provision. For people who are not addicted – or in other words who don’t require a detox program or round-the-clock observation – a solid outpatient program can often provide enough treatment to achieve and maintain recovery from drug abuse.

For people with only mild drug abuse problems, inpatient treatment may not be necessary. If the treatment expert determines that outpatient treatment is appropriate, this type of program can provide the needed therapy and treatment without extensive disruption to the person’s daily life. However, it is important to work with a treatment specialist to determine the course of treatment that is most likely to help the person achieve recovery.

Intensive outpatient programs are thorough treatment plans that offer the comprehensive therapies described above but in an outpatient setting. These programs can serve as a full treatment course for some people, while for others, they can provide aftercare and support as a follow-up treatment to an inpatient program.


Whether the program selected is inpatient or outpatient, an important element of treatment is therapy. Along with the necessary detox and withdrawal services, reputable programs provide behavioral therapy that can assist a person in learning about the nature of substance abuse and how to avoid triggers that lead to continued use of drugs.


Because drug abuse is a behavioral issue, the therapy types that are most helpful are those that help people recognize the situations and patterns in their lives that lead them to abuse drugs and train them to change those patterns. This involves observing and developing an understanding of the situations and triggers that evoke the desire to use drugs, noting the drug-seeking behaviors that follow, and then learning to replace those behaviors with new ones that do not involve drugs. The types of therapies most often used for this include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: basic behavioral change treatment
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: specialized therapy for those whose behaviors are part of a response to trauma
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy: treatment that is especially helpful for people with co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Interpersonal Therapy: teaches skills for building a social network that can distract from the desire to abuse drugs
  • Contingency Management and Motivational Therapies: techniques that enhance motivation to continue treatment and maintain abstinence

Another type of therapy that is important to treatment is family therapy. This type of therapy can help the person learn to navigate family relationships or patterns that may have contributed to drug abuse. At the same time, it can help other family members understand the challenges and triggers that lead to drug abuse and change their behaviors in a way that can support their loved one in maintaining abstinence.

Providing Positive Treatment Outcomes

What seems to be most important regardless of the treatment type is a combination of time spent in the rehab program, the intensity of treatment, and the level of satisfaction with the treatment. More intense treatment tends to give a greater feeling of satisfaction, which can contribute to more positive treatment results.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most helpful drug abuse treatment programs incorporate a variety of different therapies and treatment modalities into their menu of services in order to be able to customize the services to meet a particular individual’s needs.

Because of the nature of inpatient treatment programs, they are most likely to be able to provide this variety of service. As described above, outpatient programs can provide this level of variety as well, but not all of them do. For this reason, when seeking outpatient treatment, it is important to make sure that the program offers a range of services rather than just one or even just a few.

For a person dealing with substance abuse, the type of treatment required depends on the degree and nature of the drug abuse. The best way to determine the level of treatment required is to work with substance abuse treatment professionals who can help the individual determine the most helpful types of treatment.

Knowing When to Get Help for Drug Abuse

It can be a challenge to know when drug use has crossed the line into drug abuse, particularly when it comes to legal substances like alcohol or prescription drugs like medicines for anxiety or pain. However, if drug abuse is suspected, there are some signs that can indicate a substance use disorder is present and help is needed. These signs may include the following behaviors:

  • Losing interest in former favorite activities due to substance use
  • Difficulty meeting social, school, or work obligations
  • Aggression or violent behavior
  • Continuing to use drugs even when it causes problems with friends
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while using drugs

Some of these may also be signs of addiction. In either case, when one or more of these situations exist, the drug abuse has most likely progressed to a point where it is necessary to consider getting treatment. When this happens, getting in touch with a treatment center or program that specializes in drug abuse treatment can be the first step on the path to recovery.

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