Drug addiction is a serious health condition that can take over your life, but there is help and support available.
What is drug addiction?
Someone is addicted when they are dependent on drugs and experience the impulse to take them. People who are addicted to drugs often will go to extreme lengths to access them, whatever the consequences might be for their health, wellbeing, friends and family or finances.
People can be addicted to any kind of drug, including cannabis (weed), alcohol and prescription medicines (like paracetamol or morphine).
Being addicted to drugs can have a lot of very damaging consequences:
- On your relationships - the pleasure you get from taking drugs, and the physical need you have to do it, can become stronger than other things in your life like your family or friends. This means you start ignoring the people in your life or do things that upset them, in order to take drugs.
- On your school or professional life - It can be very hard to keep working and studying when you are addicted and regularly high.
- On your mental health - there is a lot of research connecting drug misuse to the development of mental health conditions. For example, a preliminary joint research by the University of Oxford and McGill University found that using cannabis (weed) in adolescence increases your risk of developing depression in adulthood by 37 percent.
- On your physical health - drug addiction is associated with lots of different long-term health conditions, including cancer, or liver and kidney damage. Short-term, some drugs can cause overdoses, where the drugs overwhelm the body and cause oxygen starvation or heart attacks, which can be fatal.
- On your safety - Someone who is addicted is willing to put themselves in unsafe situations to access drugs.
The science behind addiction
The first time someone uses a drug, it creates a feeling of euphoria or intense pleasure. This activates the ‘reward’ circuitry in their brain and release dopamine, a chemical which sends a message to their brain that whatever is causing the pleasure is good.
The more often someone uses that drug, the more their brain will begin to change. Their neurons will sense that there is more than enough dopamine production and their body will then make less dopamine naturally or reduce its number of dopamine receptors. The result is that the dopamine’s ability to activate the circuits that cause pleasure becomes reduced, and the person feels flat or depressed without the drug. Repeated drug use has also been shown to alter the brain in ways that changes someone's memory and how they make decisions, all of which makes it more likely that they will take the drug again. Someone who is addicted will also build up tolerance to the drug, which means they need to take more and more of it to feel its effects.
Some people are more likely to get addicted than others, probably because of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. If people in your family are addicted, for example, this might mean you are susceptible to addiction as well. The earlier you begin using drugs, the more likely you are to develop an addiction, and the more likely you are to relapse into drug abuse when trying to quit.
The first step to getting help is realising and accepting that you are addicted. If you think you might be addicted to drugs, try opening up to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, counsellor or member of staff at school. They will be able to give you support, listen to your experiences or help you to access professional help.
Once you are ready for professional help, your doctor is a very good place to start. They can discuss your problems with you and get you into treatment. They may offer you treatment at their practice or refer you to your local drug service. If you're not comfortable talking to your GP, you can approach your local drug treatment service yourself. If you’re based in the UK, you can visit the Frank website to find local drug treatment services.
Many people recover from drug addiction, and no one needs to do it alone.
Types of treatment
This depends on your personal circumstances and what you're addicted to. Your treatment may include:
Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), help you to see how your thoughts and feelings affect your behaviour.
Treatment with medicines
If you're dependent on heroin or another opioid drug, you might be offered a substitute drug, such as methadone. This means you can get on with your treatment without having to worry about withdrawing or buying street drugs.
This is for people who want to stop taking opioid drugs like heroin completely. It helps you to cope with the withdrawal symptoms.
Some people find support groups like Narcotics Anonymous helpful. Your key worker can tell you where your nearest group is.
Your drug workers will help you to reduce the risks associated with your drug-taking. You might be offered testing and treatment for hepatitis or HIV, for example.
- Beating addictions - information about a range of addictive behaviours and treatments.
- Addaction - charity providing a range of services to help transform the lives of people affected by drug and alcohol problems - details of local services are available on the website.
- Alcoholics anonymous - fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.
- The Alliance - user-led organisation that provides information and advocacy for people accessing treatment for drug and alcohol problems.
- Narcotics anonymous - user-led group of men and women who support each other to stop using drugs.
- Release - national charity that gives free and confidential advice about drugs and the law