What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse occurs when a person using psychoactive substances, such as drugs or alcohol, in ways that harm themselves or the people around them. People can abuse:

  • Alcohol
  • Hallucinogenic drugs
  • Amphetamines
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine or crack
  • Heroin
  • Inhalants
  • Cigarettes or other types of tobacco
  • Prescription pain killers
  • Caffeine
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Other illicit drugs

Clearly, some substances take more use to constitute abuse than others. For example, people who drink a few cups of coffee each day do not require substance abuse treatment, but those who drink alcohol or inject heroin every day do.

People can use alcohol and even illegal drugs in ways that do not constitute substance abuse. For example, someone who has a few drinks on Saturday night and then stays sober until the next weekend does not abuse alcohol.

The key to determining if a person is using or abusing a substance is looking at the ways in which the substance impacts their lives and the people around them. While a daily coffee helps someone be more productive, daily doses of meth may leave them homeless.

Instead, substance abuse is a pattern of behaviors, thoughts, and physical symptoms that harm the person and make it difficult to live daily life. Patients with substance abuse problems may physically depend on drugs or alcohol, which means they experience withdrawal symptoms whenever they go very long without some of the substance.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Someone who experiences substance abuse may demonstrate behavioral, physical, emotional or social signs.


  • Recurring legal troubles, such as DUIs, theft, or assault
  • Suddenly becoming more secretive
  • Neglecting school, work, or family responsibilities
  • Planning their lives around the substance


  • Redness in the eyes
  • Small or enlarged pupils, depending on the substance
  • Tremors
  • Slurred speech
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Drastic, unexplained changes in weight


  • Anger outbursts
  • Seeming tired or distracted
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings


  • Difficulties in once-stable relationships
  • Surrounding oneself with people who abuse substances
  • Abandoning supportive people and beloved activities

Effects of Substance Abuse

People who abuse substances suffer short- and long-term effects on their physical health, social lives, mental health, and basic needs.

The most important and pressing fact is that thousands of people die from substance abuse each year. Overdoses, accidents, and long-term health effect can all causes these deaths:

Even when people survive substance abuse, they can deal with several other difficulties. People with addictions often damage their healthy relationships, lose their jobs, have their children taken by CPS, or become homeless. They may forgo basic necessities like food and water in order to buy more of the substance.

Risk Factors of Substance Abuse

Addiction can affect anyone, as the current opioid epidemic demonstrates. People of any ethnicity, social background, or economic status can become addicted to a substance. However, some people are more prone to it than others. Experts believe that the following factors can make a person more likely to experience substance abuse:

  • A close biological relative who lives with addiction
  • Nicotine, drug, or alcohol use at an early age
  • High impulsivity
  • Experiencing trauma, abuse, or neglect
  • Untreated mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or schizophrenia

These factors do not guarantee that a person will develop an addiction. Furthermore, some people experience substance abuse without any of these risks.

Types of Substance Abuse Treatment

People with addictions often feel hopeless, as though nothing can beat their dependencies on the substance. However, behavioral health professionals can help patients overcome the need to use the substance and live healthy lives.

Mental health professionals have developed several techniques for treating substance abuse. These methods address the physical, emotional, behavioral, and social aspects of the disorder. In general, professionals divide treatment methods into two types: inpatient and outpatient.

Inpatient Substance Abuse Treatment Center

Inpatient substance abuse treatment centers are what many people refer to as simply “rehab.” People who struggle with all kinds of addictions come to these centers for help.
With inpatient substance abuse treatment, patients live in the treatment center around the clock. Trained professionals supervise the patients and help them cope with the physical and emotional side effects of withdrawal. People in inpatient centers do not have access to the substances they abuse.

Detoxing from a substance can be extremely uncomfortable and cause painful symptoms in the short term. To stop the pain of withdrawal, people who try detoxing alone often turn back to the substance. Inpatient treatment allows patients to stop this cycle.

During inpatient treatment, patients see psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors as needed. They also attend group therapy sessions and individual therapy. This intensive and holistic approach treats the many facets of addiction.

Patients stay in inpatient substance abuse treatment centers beyond the initial withdrawal symptoms. Even after the peak of the physical symptoms, people may feel as though they cannot control the urges to use the substance again. Patients stay as long as they need to.

Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment

While inpatient substance abuse treatment offers the most intensive option, it is not always feasible or necessary. For example, smoking cessation does not typically require inpatient therapy. Furthermore, some patients may refuse inpatient treatment because they need to work.

In outpatient substance abuse treatment, patients come to the treatment center for a few hours each day to attend group therapy sessions , meet with counselors, and see doctors. However, the patients go home to sleep, eat, work, and be with family.

Sometimes, patients go to outpatient therapy after they complete inpatient treatment. This allows them to gently transition between residential supervision and daily life without treatment. Such an approach can help patients be more successful in recovery.

Outpatients substance abuse treatments come with varying levels of intensity. For example, some programs require patients to be at the center during normal working hours or for 12 hours at a time. Meanwhile, other programs may only require one or two hours of attendance each day. The intensity level depends on the patient’s needs and the stage they are in their recovery. Eventually, patients can transition to attending just group meetings daily or even weekly.