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Why Do People Use Drugs?

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 8, 2019

Each individual is different when it comes to how or why they abuse drugs or alcohol. There are many factors that go into what makes a person fall victim to the addictive nature of these drugs. It is important to understand how a person became addicted in order to find the best way to get them the help that they need.

It may be difficult for some people to understand why anyone would ever begin abusing drugs or alcohol in the first place. In fact, some people may believe that a person who has abused substances may be weak of character or that they do not care about the negative consequences. It is important to understand that substance abuse and addiction can happen to anyone and that these things have nothing to do with a person’s character.

We now know that there are many factors that contribute to substance abuse. In addition, stopping substance abuse is much harder than the average person may think. Because recent decades have seen increased research regarding why people use drugs, new information is available which identifies two major things impacting substance abuse: risk factors and protective factors.

What Are Risk Factors?

In essence, risk factors are those things which can increase a person’s risk for substance abuse. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, they can be experienced at different stages in children’s lives, and with each stage, risk factors may be decreased through preventative measures.

In most cases, earlier the risk is caught and properly addressed, the better the chance of preventing further risks. Some examples of early risks are aggressive behavior, lack of involvement from parents, and poverty. Each of these risks can lead to later, more problematic risks, such as substance abuse and trouble with the law.

The following is a list of common factors which may play a role in the likelihood of substance abuse, even within an adult’s life, according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Family history of substance abuse — some people affected by substance abuse may be genetically predisposed to it. Additionally, living in an environment heavily influenced by substance abuse may increase a person’s risk of falling victim to it.
  • A person’s gender — men are more at risk than women, however, the addiction process tends to happen more rapidly in women.
  • Comorbidity (having more than one disorder at a time) — mental disorders put people at a greater risk for developing substance abuse.
  • Societal influence — particularly for youth, pressure from those close to a person, or the innate need to fit into a new crowd, may cause a person to try things they would not otherwise try.
  • Strong need to cope — people who suffer from major stressors from disorders like anxiety or depression may be seeking an alternate outlet for the hardships that go with these disorders.
  • Prescriptions for addictive medications — though many people can safely take antidepressants or painkillers without the worry of addiction, some people may find that they gradually begin to misuse their medications in a way other than intended. This happens slowly over time, so some people may not always know they are at risk for addiction simply by taking their medications.

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If a person is suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder, they may be particularly at risk for substance abuse. However, none of these risk factors are a guarantee that a person will develop a substance use disorder. In fact, risk factors pose much less of a threat when protective factors are in place.

What Are Protective Factors?

Protective factors can help change a person’s risk factors by reducing them. They may also be viewed as positive events in a person’s life that help to counter the effects of substance abuse. For instance, a person who is at risk for substance abuse due to high risk factors such as aggressive behavior can learn to maintain this behavior through self-control. In this case, self-control is the protective factor.

Other types of protective factors include close monitoring from parents or guardians, keeping children on track in school, raising awareness of substance abuse early to combat the availability of drugs, and forming strong community ties to help deal with the stresses of poverty or lack of resources.

One important difference between protective factors is that some are fixed, meaning they do not change over time, while others vary with circumstances. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has identified certain protective factors which occur at the individual level, including having a good self-image, maintaining self-control, and having a good handle on social etiquette.

Other protective factors occur at the community or group level. People may experience protective factors in relationships from supportive partners. Protective factors in a community include the resources available for prevention and the laws and policies which restrain substance abuse.

Is There Help For People Who Want To Stop Abusing Substances?

It may be very difficult to understand why people fall victim to substance abuse. So many factors may affect a person’s decision to try substances for the first time. When faced with overwhelming circumstances, people may have a hard time resisting the temptation of substance abuse. The light at the end of such a dark truth is that treatment is available for individuals that are struggling with substance abuse or addiction.

Comprehensive treatment may involve a number of methods. Treatment depends largely on the addictive substance, but may include:

  • Detoxification process: some substances may cause a withdrawal process during which the body will rid itself of toxic chemicals acquired from substance abuse. This is a harsh process which demands support (often medical support).
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): medications include non-addictive opioids, as well as medications for any comorbid disorders, including mental health disorders. Many medications have also been developed for the specific treatment of certain drugs.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: therapy which teaches a person to build lifestyle habits which foster a fulfilled life free from substance abuse.
  • Group, family, or individual counseling: offered in addition to other treatment methods, counseling helps an individual find ways to cope and to allow outlets for feelings and thoughts.

Because treatment must take into account any other health conditions or disorders, it is important to weigh all methods and seek as much information regarding treatment as possible. Further, full recovery may take an extended period of time, and continued treatment can be costly. Therefore, any decisions for treatment should also consider the resources that are available, including funds, location, and the amount of family support.

Reversing The Stigma: Get Help For Substance Abuse

Many things put people at risk for substance abuse, but there are just as many protective methods in place to help counter these risks. Even if you or someone you love has been impacted by substance abuse or addiction, you can get help. If you contact us today at, we can connect you with the resources you need to help you succeed in recovery. We can also provide a professional team who will listen and help you find the treatment plan you deserve.

National Institute On Drug Abuse - DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Use And Addiction

U.S. National Library Of Medicine - Substance Use Disorder - Risk And Protective Factors

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