Substance abuse is the act of the repetitive and harmful use of psychoactive drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse is characterized by persistent use, despite negative consequences such as financial, legal, and relationship troubles, and mental health and medical problems.
The medical terminology that refers to addiction has recently changed from substance abuse and substance dependence to substance use disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. The new classifications allow the provider to better define particular stages of abuse and dependence.
Substance abuse is truly a destructive and maladaptive disorder that, when untreated, progresses to the development of serious problems in almost all areas of one’s life. The earlier that it is treated, the more problems that can be prevented. In its most severe form, substance abuse can lead to incarceration, death by overdose, withdrawal, medical problems, or suicide.
Though the recreational use of psychoactive drugs and alcohol frequently begins as a social behavior, it oftentimes progresses to substance abuse and dependence, which is a profoundly isolative experience. What once seemed like a fun experience, has now turned into an uncontrollable behavior. With today’s advances in medical, psychiatric, and counseling services, one does not need to lose all things important, such as employment, housing, relationships, physical and mental health, and most importantly one’s sense of self, to recover.
A hallmark of substance abuse is the denial of the severity of the use and its associated consequences, by both family members and the person who is experience drug addiction and/or alcoholism. Denial psychologically protects one from truly experiencing the reality of the situation. When a person is addicted to a substance, the brain and body behave in such a way as to believe the substance is necessary for survival, much like the need for water and food. Additionally and unfortunately, medications that can be life-saving when used appropriately, can become substances of abuse.
The most typically abused classes of psychoactive substances include alcohol, opiates and heroin, stimulants, synthetic drugs, and hallucinogens and marijuana.
Also known as ethyl alcohol, or drinking alcohol, alcohol is one of the most ancient substances that can lead to abuse, dating back to at least 3000 B.C. It is produced by the fermentation of substances such as fruits, grains, vegetables, and honey. Because alcohol is commonly used in social settings, and as an acceptable form of relaxation, it is the most abused substance. Whereas, using cocaine would cause concern to the user, the use of alcohol is perceived as a normal behavior. Thus, alcohol abuse and alcoholism frequently go undetected for long periods of time.
Heroin is produced from morphine, a naturally-occurring substance in the poppy plant. The development of heroin lead to the production of a more potent form of opioids, and is highly addictive. With the advent of synthetic opiates, such as Oxycontin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and Dilaudid, heroin use waned in the United States. However, due to the recent increased oversight of pain clinics and the distribution and prescription of synthetic opiates by the government, heroin abuse is again on the rise. Because heroin is produced in makeshift laboratories, the purity is unknown to the user. This leads to a high risk of overdose and potentially death in those who abuse heroin. However, the synthetic opiates are still commonly abuse, and can lead to overdose as well.
Stimulants, such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, Ritalin, Concerta, cocaine, and crack cocaine are highly addictive. The use of these substances is associated with the rapid development of drug addiction. The criminal and social behaviors associated with an addiction to these substances frequently lead to the incarceration of the user. The use of this class of drugs produce a stimulant effect on the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and cause an increased state of alertness, a feeling of euphoria, and an increase in sympathetic drive, such as an increase in sweating, blood pressure, and heart rate, which can lead to grave consequences.
Synthetic drugs are produced in clandestine laboratories and attempt to mimic the effects of substances the have been deemed illegal or controlled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Examples of synthetic drugs commonly available on the streets are spice, K2, and Bath Salts. Several synthetic drugs have now been classified as illegal by the DEA. However, the clandestine laboratories and chemists attempt to overcome the controlled classifications by slightly chemically altering the substance. Therefore, the substance is not illegal when initially produced. Some may even be labelled as, “not for human consumption,” and easily sold in convenience stores and “head” shops.
Hallucinogens are substances that, when ingested, create altered perceptions of reality, both of self and the surrounding environment. Marijuana’s active component, THC, has properties that fit into the hallucinogenic spectrum of drugs. These addictive substances induce a state of euphoria (excitement and happiness) that can rapidly change and become a state of dysphoria (a state of unease), i.e. a bad “trip.” Hallucinogens create intense emotional swings, and hallucinations such as hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not truly present. Commonly used hallucinogens are Ecstasy (XTC), LSD, PCP, mushrooms (mescaline and Peyote), Ketamine, and dextromethorphan (DXM). Some hallucinogens can cause dissociation, which leads to the absence of the connection of one’s thoughts, memories, and the sense of identity.
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