Drug use is a dynamic issue that begins in different ways for different individuals. There are countless reasons why people begin to abuse drugs, whether they’re illicit drugs or prescription medications. The range of reasons why people take drugs is as broad as the types of people who use them. Drug addiction can affect anyone, of any background, and of any socio-economic status.
Contrary to popular belief, drug use doesn’t solely fall under the category of mental illness, homelessness or even poor family upbringing. Educated individuals with high-paying jobs, families and seemingly perfect or sought-after lives can be vulnerable to drug abuse, as well.
In general, there are three primary causes of drug use. Within these main causes, there stems a myriad of reasons as to why people start to use drugs. Certain people may face several different factors, which are each, on their own, a reason to use drugs. But these reasons are all the result of some sort of emotional, psychological or physical categorization of the causes for drug use.
Emotional: Feeling they need drugs to fill a void in their lives (whether it’s stress, trauma, relationship issues or more)
Physical: Feeling like they need the physical effects of a high or low to physically feel better
Psychological: General feelings of inadequacy towards themselves or the world, so they use drugs to boost their confidence and self-esteem and ability to make sense of things
Triggering and Common Causes of Drug Abuse
While there are emotional, psychological and physical reasons why people may choose to abuse drugs in the first place, there are several triggers that fall within these reasons.
Emotional stress can develop due to a number of reasons. It can be the result of a loss such as a job, a death, a divorce or finances. Even health issues and medical conditions can cause severe emotional damage. Physically, many people use drugs to boost their endurance, improve their focus or enhance their appearance in some capacity. Finally, drug use is also the result of psychological factors such as mental illness, mental trauma or even just general attitude and beliefs.
Regardless of the triggers for drug use, it’s important to learn how to cope in healthy and productive ways. Unfortunately, many people turn to substances as an easy or perceived helpful way to cope.
Here are some of the most common causes of drug abuse and why substance use occurs in different people:
Grieving a death
End of a relationship
Peer and Social Pressure
Abuse and trauma
To fit in
Curiosity and experimentation
To be in control
To enhance performance
Misinformation or ignorance
Grieving: The death of a loved one, such as a close friend or family member, or even a mentor who positively influenced a person, is emotionally devastating for people. Different people handle grief in different ways. Some people are able to seek counseling or work through grief on their own in healthy ways. Other people really struggle with the emotional or physical loss, so they use drugs as a way of coping with grief in the short-term. However, this short-term coping mechanism may transition into a long-term dependence for some people.
End of a Relationship: The end of a relationship is one of the most emotionally destructive events in a person’s life. When a relationship ends through a breakup or divorce, it can negatively impact self-confidence. This goes on to affect other areas of life including career, friendships, families and even one’s ability to find a purpose. If the person doesn’t have appropriate emotional support available to them, they may use drugs as a way of grieving the loss of their relationship.
Mental Illness: A complex trigger of substance abuse is mental illness. There are several varieties of mental illness that manifest themselves in different ways. Some people who face mental health challenges are vulnerable to using drugs as a way of rationalizing or making sense of their illness. Others who face depression or anxiety disorders may use drugs to help lift them out of these low mental states.
Environmental Influences: The environment that a person has been exposed to can influence and trigger drug use. Growing up in poverty or in households with drug addiction, abuse, crime or other negative factors can create a high risk for substance abuse in those exposed to these conditions. They may perceive drug use as normal or acceptable. Or, they may psychologically believe this to be a pattern they can fall into.
Relaxation: The average adult faces typical life obligations such as bills, family and work. Because of this, many people look for outlets to help relax and find a balance between responsibilities and having fun. Unfortunately, some people may use drugs as an outlet to help relax and unwind on evenings and weekends. If left unaddressed, this pattern can develop into a dependence or addiction.
Self-Medication: When people face physical or emotional pain, they may use drugs to self-medicate. This means they use drugs that aren’t prescribed to them by a doctor. Instead, they use drugs such as painkillers to administer pain relief to themselves. Certain painkillers have highly addictive properties, which often leads to developing an addiction to them.
Financial Stress: The burden of financial stress can be intolerable for many people. Money pressures can cause people to feel trapped, desperate and out of control. These feelings lead to emotional and psychological conditions that trigger drug use. Drugs can often help people to forget about their financial responsibilities or avoid dealing with them altogether.
Career Pressures: It is common in today’s society to have your identity tied to your career. For many people, their career places a lot of pressure on them to perform, which is often reflected in their idea of their own self-worth. This type of pressure can cause emotional and psychological stress. To help perform better or alleviate work stress, it’s possible to turn to drugs to help cope, forget failures or boost performance.
School Pressures: Similar to career pressures, school pressure is another one of the common reasons people abuse drugs. Many people face large workloads with classes and homework, financial stress from student loans, balancing family and work while going to school and the pressure to perform academically. These stressful conditions make it easy for some people to be more susceptible to drug use as a way of coping.
Additionally, professional educational programs such as medical or law school have even greater standards of academic achievement, coupled with higher financial costs. It is not uncommon for students in graduate programs to use stimulants and other drugs as a means of boosting their cognitive performance.
Family Demands: Typical family demands include balancing work with raising kids, as well as financial obligations towards family members. But, when those demands become overwhelming, it can be difficult to manage. This may be especially true for young mothers who can face feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety. Drug use, especially through prescription pills, can become an easy way for parents to help cope with family demands.
Peer and Social Pressure: One of the most well-known ways for people — especially teens and young adults — to start using drugs is through external pressures from other people. Commonly known as peer pressure, people may begin using drugs because of the influence of their peers. For them, it becomes something they all share in common, and so they feel pressured to continue to use drugs even if they understand the dire consequences.
Additionally, younger people may experience social pressure to use drugs from television, social media and other celebrity influences. It’s possible that people see drug use being glorified in the media, and so they feel pressured to participate as well.
Trauma and Abuse: Past or current traumas such as abuse, accidents, emergencies and other events can negatively impact people psychologically. Traumatic events can imprint in memory, making it difficult to move past them. Even traumas that occurred during childhood can resurface in adult years, bringing up new thoughts and feelings. Instead of seeking professional help to address trauma in a healthy way, people may use drugs as a means to help them forget these memories.
Present traumas, such as living in an abusive environment, can also trigger substance use as a means of forgetting the pain and suffering. Often, abuse is faced on a regular or even daily basis, and so drug use can quickly turn into an addiction in this case.
Enjoyment of Getting High: Many people try drugs once as an experiment and end up finding euphoric sensations from these substances. The chemical reactions between the drug and the brain cause a release of dopamine, which is pleasurable to many people. When this happens, people will continue to chase that same euphoria and release because they like how it makes them feel. It may make them feel more relaxed, self-confident, in control or any number of other outcomes.
Boredom: Teens and young adults often face feelings of boredom or monotony, as many of them don’t yet have adult responsibilities such as careers, bills, higher education, families and more. Drug use may seem like a convenient or entertaining way to pass the time. While this may not always lead to a full addiction, it can often become a go-to way of alleviating boredom instead of choosing other positive activities.
Wanting to Fit In: Because human beings are social creatures, it’s important to us to feel like we belong or fit in. This can affect people of any age, but is most influential during teenage and early adult years. If others around them are using drugs, they may fear feeling left out, or that they won’t fit in. As a result, they place pressure on themselves to use drugs as well.
Curiosity and Experimentation: For those who are around drugs, but haven’t yet used them, they may hear positive feedback about certain drugs. They may become intrigued or interested in their friends’ experiences, and so they try certain drugs as well. This isn’t necessarily the result of the pressure of fear of not fitting in, but rather genuine curiosity and a desire to try something new.
Rebellion: Certain personalities are more prone to rebellion or going against the grain. This occurs in teens and even in adults. Because drug use is illicit or not socially acceptable, it actually drives certain people to want to use them in order to rebel, stand out or be different. For some people, this may simply be a phase of rebellion and experimentation, or it may develop into an addiction.
Being in Control: When stressful periods of time occur with relationships, job loss, health scares or other tragedies, many people lose a sense of being in control of their own lives. Drug use provides a false sense of being in control of health, emotions or behaviors that many people find appealing. They may feel as though, when everything else around them is falling apart, they can rely on their substance use to give them stability.
Enhance Performance: Certain drugs may help to temporarily enhance cognitive function, memory and focus. They may also help to alleviate fatigue and lethargy. These are usually stimulants and other prescription drugs. For students or busy professionals, these types of drugs can seem like a viable solution.
Other drugs, such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormones or stimulants, are used to improve physical performance in athletes or those who are extremely physically active. People often choose to use these types of drugs in order to compete or look a certain way.
Prescription Medications: Prescription drug abuse is becoming an increasingly concerning issue that affects many people. Doctors may prescribe opioid painkillers to patients who are recovering from surgery and facing injuries or other medical situations. Left unmonitored, some people are susceptible to abusing these prescription medications because of the high they provide. They may end up getting hooked unintentionally and begin finding ways to keep obtaining their prescription pills.
Isolation: Despite being more connected than ever, many people suffer from feelings of isolation. If they feel as though they can’t relate to others or that they aren’t understood by their peers, they may feel out of place. These feelings can lead to low self-esteem or even depression over time. This only further exacerbates a state of isolation. In order to numb this loneliness or emptiness, they use drugs to feel alive and forget about feeling isolated. Using drugs may also give them a sense of satisfaction and purpose.
Misinformation or Ignorance: Drug use and dependence have a number of consequences. Physical, emotional, social, financial and psychological repercussions stop many people from continuing to use drugs or from using drugs in the first place. Unfortunately, despite the amount of awareness surround the risks of drug use, there is still a lot of misinformation about it.
This misinformation may especially impact young or undereducated people who don’t have the life experience or ability to understand the dangers of drug use. Additionally, many people may see others use drugs and not face any health or other concerns, and so they think that it won’t hurt them either.
Instant Gratification: Many individuals have personality types that desire instant gratification. This means they look for ways to be satisfied immediately and in the short-term, as opposed to being satisfied by delayed gratification. This may be especially true in young people who are conditioned today to expect that things happen on-demand.
Drug use delivers an instant gratification terms of physical, psychological and emotional sensations. It’s also often a social act, which further enhances feelings of gratification.
Availability of Drugs: With the increased convenience of the internet and modern communications, it’s relatively easy for people to obtain drugs today. When it comes to prescription medications specifically, these drugs are now being distributed as street drugs. They can also easily be obtained from friends, family members and colleagues who have prescriptions of their own.
Prescription drugs are also fairly easy to obtain with a prescription from a doctor, provided there are no clear signs of a risk for abuse and dependence.
Reasons for Drug Use Within Different Social Groups
It’s important to understand that people use drugs for many different reasons, but that there is no one stereotypical drug user. Different social groups from different backgrounds and demographics have different reasons and triggering factors for abusing drugs. While drug use can affect virtually anyone, there are particular groups in society who become more vulnerable to drug use and eventual addiction.
Some of the groups of drug users may include:
Homelessness and mental illness
Teens face a different set of substance abuse triggers and influences. Teenagers face a difficult period of time that’s characterized by school pressures, social obligations, hormonal changes and much more.
Teenagers often face family or financial stresses as they grow old enough to understand the challenges of life. Teenagers are also faced with the intense pressure of needing to fit in and look cool, which often means abusing drugs and alcohol. Additionally, teens typically go through a phase of rebellion against their parents or attachment figures. Substance abuse is a common way to express this rebellious stage.
Because teens are at a vulnerable time in their lives, they may continue to abuse drugs and eventually become addicted. This addiction helps them find control and escape from their external stress and pressure.
Many seemingly “normal” individuals succumb to drug abuse. This happens for a variety of reasons, which includes societal pressures, work-related burdens or financial stress. Additionally, many working professionals have the means with which to support a drug dependence. They are often doctors, lawyers or other professional types with high incomes to pay for a drug habit.
Homelessness and Mental Illness
When people think of drug use, they typically think of homeless people or those living in poverty. They may also associate drug use with mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions. These are an especially vulnerable societal group who use drugs as part of a much larger issue.
Homeless people and those struggling with mental health challenges face isolation, depression and an overall lack of support that leads them to use drugs. Additionally, they often find themselves associating with others who face the same challenges and who also use drugs. This then becomes a cycle of drug use, which often leads to addiction.
From Drug Use to Addiction
As people begin to rely more and more on substances to accomplish their psychological, physical or emotional needs, it increases the risk of developing an addiction. When substances begin to serve their purpose and adequately fill a need, a person can become susceptible to relying on the drug in order to function or feel in control.
This turns into a dependence on the drug, which can eventually create a full-fledged addiction. Once addiction begins, it can impact other areas of the person’s life above and beyond the one portion it was intended to “fix.”
Not all people who use drugs will develop an addiction. A full drug addiction is characterized by a chronic disease state whereby symptoms of physical withdrawal begin. With an addiction, the person physically cannot live without drugs and may eventually die as a result. Drug use, no matter what initially led to it, can eventually turn into an addiction for some people.
Seeking Treatment for Substance Abuse
No matter the reason or trigger for drug addiction, it’s always imperative to seek proper treatment. Treatment options can be tailored to an individual’s needs depending on the root cause of their drug addiction, their background and history as well as any other factors.
No one is beyond treatment. No matter what the triggering factors or causes for drug use may be, there is always hope for treatment and long-term recovery. Whatever challenges an individual is facing, there are positive and healthy ways to seek help.