Thanks to scientific research, we now have a better understanding of what could cause a person to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. There are certain environmental and genetic risk factors that put some people at higher risk for addiction than others.
While a risk factor doesn’t guarantee that someone will develop an addiction, it increases the chances that they will. The presence of multiple risk factors further increases the likelihood.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines environmental factors as those that pertain to school, work, family, home, and one’s neighborhood or city. There are unique features related to:
Family and Home
These are especially important for children and teens. Seeing parents take part in unhealthy habits might influence children and teenagers to take drugs.
According to Healthline, peers can have a strong influence on people who otherwise live in a healthy home environment. This is particularly relevant for teens.
Academic or Social Troubles
Among teens, not doing well in school or social awkwardness can increase the risk that they will try drugs.
The availability of a chosen substance makes it easier to become addicted. Parties, happy hours, and special occasions can be easy situations where teens can buy or try drugs or misuse alcohol.
The Role of Genes
Genes can increase your chances of becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs, per NIDA. Your gender, ethnicity, and even developmental stage can have an influence on your addiction potential as well.
Genetics account for between 40 and 60 percent of an individual’s risk potential.
Other Risk Factors
Along with genes and environmental factors, there are other risk factors that could increase your likelihood of misusing substances. Some of these include:
Mental Health Disorders
If you have a mental health disorder, such as a personality disorder, depression, anxiety, or another issue, it is more likely that you could abuse drugs.
Usually, this creates a cycle that is difficult to stop because drug misuse can also worsen some mental health issues. People with some mental health issues are between 28 and 70 percent more likely to misuse alcohol.
Medical problems could have an impact on your risk of becoming addicted to drugs. People who rely on opioid painkillers to manage chronic pain are at risk of substance misuse. Many of these painkillers are habit-forming, and many people who abuse heroin started by abusing prescription painkillers.
The Drug You Use
Not all drugs are created equal. Certain drugs, such as methamphetamine and heroin, are easier to become addicted to because they are associated with painful symptoms of withdrawal. This incentivizes a person to use these drugs more often to end discomfort.
Method of Drug Use
Swallowing a drug makes it harder to become addicted because your liver has to filter it first. Smoking or injecting a drug ensures that it reaches your brain and bloodstream quickly, which facilitates addiction.
The Stage at Which You Start Using Drugs
Generally, the younger you are when you first start using drugs, the easier it is to become addicted. Using drugs at a young age could change the way your brain works and make you more prone to becoming addicted as an adult.
According to Healthline, if you are between the ages of 18 and 24, you are more likely to have an alcohol or substance use disorder
Considerations for Teenagers
A March 2013 case study from the Journal of Addiction highlighted a few reasons why teenagers are more vulnerable to drug or alcohol misuse than adults.
Changes in the Teenage Brain
During adolescence, teens’ hormonal changes cause decreases in grey matter and white matter. In teens, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes decisions and sets goals) is still developing.
The part of the brain that has a role in memory, motivation, and repetition of positive actions is also changing.
Neglect or Abuse
Though mistreatment does not always have to come from a member of the child or teen’s family, the Journal of Addiction states that 16 percent of children who were abused report misusing substances. In addition, 29 percent of children who have been mistreated report some use of substances.
Emotional, Physical, or Sexual Abuse
Both physical abuse and sexual abuse at least double the risk of adolescents becoming addicted to drugs. Emotional abuse is also linked to higher rates of misuse.
Preventing Drug or Alcohol Abuse
While these risk factors can make it easier for someone to become addicted to alcohol or drugs, there are also protective factors that can help to prevent misuse.
NIDA Says a Few of These Protective Factors Include:
- Neighborhood resources
- Strong friendships and relationships
- Parental presence and guidance
- Doing well in school
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Mentions Additional Protective Factors, Such As:
- Community protective factors — These can include afterschool programs or faith-based extracurricular activities.
- Hate crime laws — These laws punish people who take actions against a particular group. If certain groups are less likely to experience discrimination and violence, they are less likely to turn to drugs.
- Prohibitory laws — These laws limit access to alcohol and drugs.
Not everyone will be able to benefit from protective factors, but SAMHSA mentions that interventions that deal with various factors, instead of a single issue, can also have a positive influence on people who are at risk of misusing drugs.
Protective factors also help ease difficult life events, especially in children and teens.
Per SAMHSA, good parenting can assist children and teens even if they experience stressful events, such as a divorce, poverty, or a parent’s mental health diagnosis.
SAMHSA also states that different kinds of interventions can have a deep impact on children, teens, and adults.
- Selective interventions address issues that are important to people in high-risk populations. Examples of these are support groups for individuals who grew up with family histories of drug or alcohol misuse.
- Individual interventions are referrals to addiction specialists for youth who fail drug tests or assistance for people who show up to the hospital with injuries due to alcohol or drug misuse.
- Broad interventions include programs for schools, workplaces, or other communities.
Interventions Change Lives
Protective factors have the power to influence a person’s drug or alcohol habits for the rest of their life. They can help to offset the power of risk factors.
Even though one person may struggle with multiple risk factors for addiction, interventions can change their trajectory. If drug use is caught early enough, comprehensive treatment can stop it. With help, addiction doesn’t have to take hold.