Substance Abuse: Types, Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

We all know that addiction is bad, but do you know what it really means to be addicted? Or what its signs and symptoms are? Read this article to understand substance abuse in depth.

By Sudha S  • 14 min read

Substance Abuse: Types, Causes, Symptoms And Treatment
Drugs can destroy lives

Substance abuse is more apparent in teenagers than in adults these days. The adolescent stage is the most critical and vulnerable phase of life and thousands of teenagers in India are having their first drag of a cigarette every minute. Teenagers get easily addicted to smoking, alcohol or drugs. The acceptability of smoking and drinking as a social behaviour also persuades them to try it out in the early teens

What is substance abuse?

Meaning of substance abuse (as per Cambridge dictionary): The regular use of illegal or harmful drugs

Substance abuse is the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, which can lead to behavioural, cognitive and physiological changes in a person. Generally, substance abuse includes alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, steroids and prescription drugs.

Says V Thirumagal, programme consultant at TTK Hospital, Indira Nagar, “Risk taking behaviour is higher among teenagers. They tend to take risks, and the chances of experimenting with alcohol or drugs are present. Peer pressure to try alcohol or drugs can also influence the choices they make.”

What is addiction?

Addiction or substance use disorder is actually a chronic brain illness and once a person gets addicted to a substance, he cannot control his need for the same. The alcohol or drug the person consumes, triggers a series of changes in his body and affects his behaviour. He ignores his health problems and even the social and legal consequences.

Studies on the human brain show that drug/alcohol addiction severely affects decision making, learning and memory retention. Abusers go into a state of deprivation and taking substances becomes indispensable for survival. Phenomena that develop after repeated substance use typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, and continuing usage despite harmful consequences.

Early symptoms of substance abuse

Be an alert parent, look out for changes in your child’s behaviour. If he shows any of these signs, seek expert help immediately.

  • Sudden outbursts of anger for no reason
  • Poor concentration or lack of interest in studies
  • Fading memory
  • Lying, stealing and over-spending
  • Irregular school attendance and poor academic performance
  • Feeling tired or fatigued quite often, restless behaviour
  • Changes in sleep cycle, appetite and food intake

Causes of substance abuse and its adverse effects

1. Smoking/chewing tobacco 

Ten years ago, teenagers loved to experiment with smoking. But today, awareness on the hazards of smoking is high and there is also a ban on smoking in public places. So, teenagers are turning to chewing tobacco as it is available more easily, and are increasingly getting addicted to it. Tobacco in any form is hazardous as it contains nicotine, which is addictive.  

2. Social drinking vs binge drinking
Teenagers can start drinking because they are simply curious, want to behave like adults, fall into peer pressure or believe that it can reduce stress. How much of alcohol is too much? Many social drinkers cannot stop at the threshold or limit quantity and tend to become uncontrolled or binge drinkers. Consumption of too much alcohol can be dangerous as it can result in the loss of sensory perception and lead to blackouts.

3. Illicit drugs
The United Nations estimates that some 200 million people all over the world use illegal drugs annually. Illicit drugs include marijuana, cocaine, opiates, stimulants, hallucinogens, inhalants and steroids. The psychoactive substances in them can lead to a dependence syndrome, and those who become addicted tend to want more of the drug progressively at shorter intervals.

Sadly, the factors that contribute to illicit drug abuse are the disintegration of the joint family system, absence of parental love and care (especially when both parents are working) and the decline of religious and moral values in today’s teenagers.

4. Club and date rape drugs
Collectively known as club drugs, substances like Ecstasy, GHB, Rohypnol, and Ketamine induce intoxication. These colourless, tasteless and odourless drugs when added unobtrusively to beverages are not easily detectable.

Pre-teens and teenagers should be cautious not to drink anything that looks suspicious or left unattended. Tell your children to stay alert and avoid anything that tastes strange.

5. Prescription drugs
Misuse of common prescription medications can have an adverse effect on the system and induce dependence. Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications and cough syrups give immediate relief and teenagers tend to misuse them even without a prescription. Chronic use leads to a change in the central nervous system.

Types of drugs

There are many drugs available out there and most of them are manufactured in amateur labs. The new drugs have no quality control standards and their after-effects and side-effects are unknown. A few of them have been identified and the risks involved therein have been highlighted.

1. Stimulants

Stimulants improve mood, relieve anxiety and induce feelings of euphoria. They decrease appetite and promote weight loss, counteract lethargy and fatigue through the day, and improve concentration. Amphetamines, caffeine, cocaine, diet pills, and methamphetamines.

2. Depressants

Abuse of depressants can cause confusion, lack of coordination, low blood pressure, and a slower heart rate and breathing. Someone who takes them may have slurred speech and an inability to concentrate, and he or she may fall asleep at work or school. Barbiturates, benzodiazepines and alcohol.

3. Hallucinogens

The more they use these drugs, the shorter the time span for that next usage. The drugs may cause panic, confusion, suspicion, anxiety and loss of control. Long-term effects include mood swings, impaired thinking, unexpected outbursts of violence and depression that may lead to death or suicide. Common hallucinogens are: Psilocybin (shrooms), DMT (dimethyltrptamine), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), Peyote and Mescaline and PCP (phencyclidine, an intravenous anaesthetic).

4. Narcotics

A psychoactive drug with sleep inducing properties, the term has become associated with heroin, morphine and their derivatives. Doctors often prescribe these in smaller doses for patients with chronic diseases and after surgery.

Who is at risk?

The chances of children taking to substance abuse is greater if there is a genetic predisposition or if someone in the family is already taking it, which means that there is an easy access to the substance. So, if there is a family history of substance abuse, watch out for early symptoms in pre-teens and teenagers because they are already at risk. Children with low self-esteem and who feel depressed and are troubled are at even greater risk.

If a parent suspects that the adolescent is using drugs or alcohol regularly, it would help to see if a combination of signs is repeatedly noticed over a period of time. These could be a change in daily routine, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, change in leisure activities or friends, deterioration in academic performance, skipping of classes or tests, being secretive, spending a lot of time alone or away from home, isolating oneself, demands for money, changes in appearance such as reddishness in eyes, droopy eyes and loss of weight.

How should you handle the situation?

Parents are at a loss of words, thoughts and actions when it comes to actual handling of the situation. If you actually find that your child has taken to substance abuse, do not panic, but try to get information from the already affected or depressed child. Have an open talk with the child and do not use authority or force him to tell you what happened. Try to identify the type of drug used as substance abuse treatment options will depend on this information. In the meantime, get expert help from a counselling centre and address the problem immediately. Your child may just require outpatient help and counselling, and some medication if necessary.

Talking to your child

Parents should accept the fact that pre-teen children and teenagers are susceptible to substance abuse. They should pre-empt this by having a friendly talk with the child making him aware of the abuses and presenting facts in a simple way. If your child is in his pre-teens, talk to him saying that food can be healthy and non-healthy. Present the information on substance abuse in the non-healthy category. Emphasise on the immediate after-effects of smoking, drinking or taking drugs rather than the long-term ill effects like lung cancer or liver damage. Put the information across in a simpler way – tell him that bad habits like these can make him age quickly, cause red eyes, cause bad breadth and have several adverse effects. A survey done in the US in 1998 (Partnership Attitude Tracking Study) revealed that boys and girls whose parents ignored the issue were about two times as likely to use drugs than kids who learned ‘a lot’ at home.

Tips on helping your teen keep away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco

Having established Dr Gautham's Neuro Centre in Chetpet decades ago to address problems in adult and child psychiatry, neuropsychiatrist Prof Dr U Gauthamadas outlines some preventive measures that parents can follow to prevent addiction in teenagers. A few points from case studies conducted at the TT Ranganathan Clinical Research Foundation have also been included in this list.

  • Spend some quality time with them every day. Maintain eye contact with your children when they talk to you. It makes a lot of difference and they will want to tell you more.
  • Get to know your children, their friends and their activities. Do not talk badly about your child’s friends or make fun of them. Also, letting your child down in their presence hurts him deeply.
  • Make your children feel comfortable in discussing their problems with you. In case of failure or getting below average marks, raise the bar of achievement little by little and tell them that they can reach it.
  • Converse, but do not lecture.
  • Give your children your love, guidance and support at all times. Tell them that they can approach you at times of crisis or when in trouble. A gentle touch or holding the hand has a tremendous effect on a troubled child. The child feels that the parents are always there for him and becomes closer to them.
  • Educate your children about drugs, tobacco, alcohol and sex. Talk to them openly and unabashedly about the effects and outcomes.
  • Encourage them to develop a hobby or sport and keep them engaged in healthy games and activities.
  • Be a good role-model and lead by example. Remember that actions speak louder than words.
  • Appreciate the child’s participation in the everyday activities like laying the dining table, caring for his sick grandmother or going out for a walk with his grandfather. This will build his self-esteem.
  • Help your child arrive at informed decisions, after learning the relevant facts and the pros and cons.
  • Help him develop good inter-personal skills.

Prevention of substance abuse 

Prevention is always better than cure and it is a collective social responsibility. Though parents have an important role to play in this, it is also the responsibility of the school, teacher, neighbour, relatives and friends. In the post-teen period, between 18 and 21 years of age, it finally zeros in on individual choice. So, it is very important that children in their pre-teen and teenage years build positive relationships all around them.  

Also read: The Negative Effects of Internet Addiction in Children

About the author:

Written by Sudha S on 29 March 2019; updated on 26 September 2019

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