Addiction to drugs and alcohol has long been recognized to be a significant health issue in the United States. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed the prevalence of drug use peaks around the end of adolescence, with close to 24 percent of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 20 having used illicit drugs within the past month (SAMHSA, 2012). While many adolescents and young adults will experiment with alcohol and illicit drugs, a significant percentage will also become addicted.
Estimates of Addiction
In 2009 an estimated 23.5 million Americans had an alcohol or drug dependency; however, the vast majority, 88.8 percent, never received specialized treatment for substance abuse (NIDA, 2011). Of these, less than 12 percent sought treatment for their addiction. The reason for this low rate can be found in an addict’s brain.
The Neurobiology of Addiction
Experts no longer view addiction as a character failing, but the product of brain changes that make it difficult to end an alcohol or drug dependency. The Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow (2005), provided an overview of research findings that revealed a family history (genetics) explains between 40 and 60 percent of addiction. The parts of the brain which influence and control a person’s emotional content, decision-making ability, and capacity to resist temptation all seem to play a role in the addictive process. When a person susceptible to addiction is exposed repeatedly to alcohol and/or drugs, the brain effectively ‘learns’ to crave these substances. These cravings can be so strong that the addict becomes fixated on ending the cravings and the drug of choice is the best way to accomplish this. Merely seeing a familiar drug cue on television, for example, can trigger these powerful cravings; therefore, a recovering addict must scrub their environment free of drug cues to decrease the risk of relapse.
Ending the Addiction Cycle
Convincing an addict to seek help, especially when the help is not being sought, can be one of the most difficult tasks anyone can undertake. Confrontations will involve loved ones and threaten to tear friends and families apart. A common obstacle to overcome is an addict’s denial that they have a problem or that it is as severe as portrayed (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2011). For this reason, experts recommend that concerned loved ones recruit help from clergy, relatives, and friends to form an intervention team. The intervention should be planned in advance by everyone that will attend the intervention. The best intervention plans will include the following:
- List the observed destructive behaviors due to the addiction.
- List the actual and predicted negative health consequences, including mental health.
- List the consequences of not seeking treatment and what each intervention team member will do in response.
- List the benefits of seeking treatment.
- Seek help from a mental health professional if needed. This is especially important if the addict is suffering from serious mental health problems, prone to violence, suicidal, currently abusing multiple drugs, or in serious denial of their addiction problem.
- Create a follow-up plan to help the addict complete treatment, reorganize their life to avoid substance abuse behavior patterns, scrub their environment clean of drug cues, and have someone available to attend counseling sessions with the addict when needed.
The Benefits of Addiction Treatment
The benefits of addiction treatment can be understood in part by what alcohol and drug abuse can do to a person over time. Aside from the gradual destruction of the addict’s financial and social well-being, repetitive exposures to alcohol or drugs will trigger physical and mental health problems or aggravate existing health issues (Open Society Institute, 2009). Accordingly, successful drug treatment should slow, halt, and possibly reverse these trends. In support of this theory, participation in drug and alcohol treatment programs have been shown to reduce medical costs, emergency room visits, and hospital stays by 26, 20, and 37 percent, respectively. The potential savings of ending substance abuse in America is therefore, in the billions.
If a loved one is suffering from an addiction, whether due to alcohol, street drugs, prescription medications, or gambling, don’t hesitate to form an intervention team. His or her health and well-being may depend on how successful the intervention is.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011). Intervention: Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction. Retrieved 10 May 2014 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/intervention/art-20047451.
- NIDA. (2011). Drug Facts: Treatment Statistics. Retrieved 10 May 2014 from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-statistics.
- SAMHSA. (2012). Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings. Retrieved 10 May 2014 from http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2k11Results/NSDUHresults2011.htm#2.1.
- Volkow, Nora D. (2005). What Do We Know About Drug Addiction? American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(8), 1401.