In brief, the first things to know about drug use and addiction.
Drug use and addiction are not the same thing.
Drugs are used widely for medicinal and social purposes. Acetaminophen, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine are all commonly used drugs. Addiction is the compulsive use of drugs despite harmful consequences. Drug use can lead to addiction, but most of the time, it doesn’t.
Drug use can lead to harms even in the absence of an addiction.
For example, alcohol use is linked to several types of cancer. Combining medications like Xanax and Vicodin can lead to overdose. These harms can occur even if the person using drugs is not suffering from an addiction.
The term “substance use disorder” is another, more scientifically accurate, way to describe an addiction.
According to the DSM-5, which is the manual used to diagnose mental health disorders, substance use disorders can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe.
People can and do recover.
About 1 in 10 Americans identify as having previously had a problem with drugs (including alcohol). Some received formal treatment services or participated in peer support groups (like 12-Step Fellowships). Others found different paths to recovery. Recovery is common and paths are diverse.
While there is a lot left to learn about effective treatment for addiction, we know that certain strategies are more effective than others.
For example, the use of agonist medications like methadone and buprenorphine reduce the death rate of people with opioid addiction. Peer support (like 12-step fellowships and SMART Recovery) promote better long term outcomes. Certain counseling techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and Contingency Management have been shown to support addiction recovery.
The same goes for the prevention of addiction: while there is much we don’t know, we do know certain strategies are more effective than others.
There are evidence-based prevention programs that have been studied and shown to be effective such as Strengthening Families, Communities That Care, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. There are also interventions that can help people recognize and address their substance use. One of these is SBIRT (which stands for Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment) which has been shown to help primary care patients reduce their alcohol use.
People with substance use disorders deserve high quality care, but unfortunately, they too-rarely receive it.
There are many reasons that addiction does not get effectively addressed, and recovery effectively supported. For example, mainstream healthcare has historically done too little to help patients with addiction, a trend that continues to this day. Furthermore, addiction treatment has generally been provided in short spurts (e.g., 30 days inpatient rehab) when patients often need longer-term support. The connections between mental health, social services, the criminal justice system, and addiction treatment providers have not been strong enough, which means people with multiple needs don’t receive coordinated care. And finally, addiction and substance use have been shrouded in stigma and, as a result, people who need help have been judged, punished, or ignored. IRETA works to counteract the many forces that impede quality care for people with addiction and their families.
Research shows that words like “addict,” “junkie,” or “drug abuser” affect the ways we think about people with addiction. Using person-first language is a simple step we can all take to improve the way addiction is treated in our communities.