What Is Drug Abuse?

Drugs come in many shapes and forms and when they’re consumed in any amount, the user is classed as engaging in ‘drug abuse’. While some may try a drug only once, or even a few times, others become drug addicts. According to a report by drug alert, a significant percentage of Australians have engaged in drug abuse over their lifetimes. This includes the abuse of prescription drugs, such as opioid analgesics. From 35.4% of Australians having tried cannabis through to 7.3% dabbling with cocaine, it’s clear that this is a widespread social issue that requires attention.

An overview of drug abuse

The term ‘drug’ refers to a substance that a person takes to achieve a physiological effect. Some drugs are psychoactive, which means they affect the user’s mood and behaviour. There are drugs that are legal, such as caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol. Some are legal when a doctor prescribes them, including benzodiazepines and painkillers. Others are illegal in all circumstances, such as cannabis, cocaine, and ICE.

Why do people use drugs and how do they become abusers?

It’s easy to assume that a person turns to drugs or cannot step away from them, due to weakness or a lack of willingness. However, this condition is about so much more than that. A combination of factors may lead to drug abuse, such as depression, having a difficult upbringing, or even genetics.

In many cases, the addicts themselves are in denial and need to recognise that there is a problem, to successfully seek and receive help. For their friends and families, understanding drug abuse is an essential part of getting addicts the help they need. Therefore, it’s important to learn about how drug addictions start and how they can be stopped.

Drug abuse usually involves a basic addiction cycle. While the process may take a different form for each person and the drugs they’re turning to, it usually begins with someone trying drugs and enjoying the euphoria that comes with them. While some will stop at this stage, or return on the odd occasion, others will continuously abuse the drugs to achieve the same effect.

With time, that person may struggle to achieve the same level of euphoria with the same amount of the drug. This means they take more to achieve the same high. At this stage, they might begin to neglect their health, engage in worrying behaviour, and care less and less about their relationships with others.

Why are drugs so addictive?

Drugs allow users to experience sensations they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy without them. They achieve this through drawing on the body’s natural resources, such as the neurotransmitters in the brain. For example, using cocaine increases the amount of dopamine that moves to the brain’s reward centre. As a result, the user feels an increase in happiness and confidence, causing them to crave more. In contrast, ketamine and cannabis may contribute to a sense of escapism through their ‘doping’ or hallucinogenic effects.

The more often someone uses a drug, the more the brain relies on it for its neurotransmitter balance. Eventually, the brain decides it no longer needs to produce as many neurotransmitters, and will eventually stop manufacturing them at a normal level. At this stage, the user needs the drug to cope with everyday situations. They may also harm the synapses and areas of the brain that allow them to interpret the world around them. When this happens, they tend not to make sound judgements and can engage in risky behaviour.

Not everyone who takes a drug becomes addicted. Genetic factors, how a person grows up and their mental health can determine whether they become an addict or not. While drug addiction is a complex disease, there are ways to treat it. With the right support and treatment plans that are appropriate for their condition, drug users can return to normality and begin functioning without depending on the substance they’re addicted to.

The signs of drug addiction

Depending on the drug the user abuses, it’s sometimes difficult to tell that they’re an addict. Many are good at hiding their behaviour. If someone asks them if they have a problem, they’ll become upset and deny that anything is wrong. In many cases, they truly believe nothing is wrong. There are key signs friends and family can look out for:

  • The person becomes paranoid
  • They may experience auditory, visual and other sensory hallucinations
  • They begin missing school or work
  • They have a lack of energy and motivation
  • They may become secretive
  • They engage less in their usual hobbies
  • They may begin asking for money more often, without any explanation as to where they’re spending it
  • Mood swings are common, including becoming irritable about seemingly small matters

Situations and scenarios that contribute to drug addiction

It’s sometimes difficult to understand why some people can dabble with drugs socially and others rely on them daily. One contributing factor is genetics. Growing up with a family member who abuses drugs increases a child’s risk of becoming an addict. Clearly, environmental influences play a role here too, as their exposure to regular drug use may make them see it as normal.

There are, however, other environmental causes of drug addiction. Those who spend time with people who regularly use drugs are more likely to do so themselves. Similarly, those whose peers condone drug use, even on a social basis, may become addicts. Poor attainment at school, bad behaviour with little parental control, and an unstable home are other contributing factors.

A person who suffers from a mental illness may also choose drugs as a means of escaping their reality. While not all people with a mental illness do this, if they have little support for their condition, they may need drugs to combat the stresses that trigger it. Medical professionals refer to this as “self-medication”, and it can apply to alcoholism too.

In many cases, drug abuse is multifactorial. This means the drug addict may have had a combination of factors contributing, such as a poor upbringing, friends who take drugs, and depression or anxiety. Regardless of whether there is one cause or many, finding the right help will make a significant difference.

With appropriate medical and holistic support, drug abusers can enjoy everyday life without using the substances they rely on.

The link between drug addiction and risky behaviour

When someone takes drugs, even for the first time, they feel disinhibited. This means they’re more likely to engage in risky behaviour than those who aren’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Science supports the link between drug use and sexually risky behaviour, for example. This includes engaging in sexual activity with multiple partners in the absence of a barrier contraceptive that would protect them against STDs.

In some cases, this may cause them to contract a longstanding STD, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis B or C. As drugs also lower the body’s immune response to these infections, they’re less likely to combat them naturally, than non-users who are healthy. Some may also encounter these blood borne viruses, through sharing needles.

The biological consequences of drug addiction

As there are so many prescription and street drugs that a person can abuse, the biological consequences of drug addiction are varied. Even drugs that have a supposedly harmless effect on the human body can increase a person’s risk of developing a serious disease. For example, they’re six times more likely to receive a schizophrenia diagnosis if they smoke cannabis. This is because the drug affects areas of the brain that are genetically susceptible to damage.

Drugs that cause the heart to beat faster, such as cocaine or amphetamines, increase the risk of heart attack or cardiomegaly. The addict’s personal health contributes to this as well, but they may find their heart enlarges to the extent it can no longer meet the body’s demands. As a result, they can find themselves with a life-threatening condition such as heart failure.

At any stage, drugs such as ketamine and heroin may cause the person to overdose. When this happens, they could fall into a self-induced coma, or as a worst-case scenario, they die.

What happens when a drug addict withdraws?

As every drug is different, they can produce a range of effects during the withdrawal stage. This may include:

  • Anxiety, depression and restlessness
  • Insomnia, headaches and difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings and poor concentration
  • Self-induced social isolation
  • Sweating, nausea and vomiting
  • A racing heart and palpitations
  • Hallucinations and severe paranoia
  • Difficulty breathing and a tight chest
  • Tremors and seizures

Treatment options for drug withdrawal

Detoxing from drugs

During the detoxification process, drug addicts receive support that combats the side-effects of withdrawal. This may involve the use of drugs a doctor can prescribe, so they’re at less risk of experiencing a seizure or vomiting.

The detoxification process also involves helping addicts work on areas of their life that cause them to turn to drugs. Alongside a counsellor, they’ll identify the stresses and social scenarios that make them crave the substance they’re addicted to. After doing this, they’ll find alternative ways to address their stresses. This can include learning to cope with work and family life in the absence of drugs and seeking better forms of support.

To achieve this, the addict needs to be honest about their condition and enter an environment of trust and support where they can flourish. They’ll need to admit their addiction to themselves and others, which is a vital first step to recovery. Acceptance and commitment therapy is a key psychological tool that will help them to strengthen their character. With the right coping mechanisms, they can lead lives that are fulfilling.


Those who want to withdraw from drugs may engage in an inpatient or outpatient program. Outpatient programs are ideal for those who’ll receive the right support away from the Riverside Clinic in Melbourne, so they won’t turn to drugs when they’re at home. For those who are more likely to abuse drugs, an inpatient program is available. This means staying at the clinic for between two and three months.

In either situation, those who use the Riverside Clinic will engage in a program that focuses on their physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. By focusing on each area, they can overcome the traumas that made them turn to drugs and lead a more fulfilling life. After exiting the rehabilitation program, patients have the tools they need to cope with everyday stresses.

The nature of each program varies, but it can include both one-to-one and group counselling sessions. Art therapies also play a role, allowing the addict to reconnect with their stronger characteristic that the drugs often mask. From the start, they’ll receive psychosocial assessments that allow the Riverside Clinic’s team to map their progress, allowing them to receive a tailored approach that meets their unique needs.

At the same time, the clinicians at the clinic will involve the drug abuser’s friends and family. Through providing them with educational tools, they help them learn how to support their loved one, once they exit the program.

The earlier an addict receives help for their problem, the more likely they are to recover. This applies to both teenagers and adults, which means it’s essential that friends and family who suspect abuse help their loved ones seek recovery promptly.

Learn more about ICE and heroin addiction treatments.

Living a life without drug addiction

No matter how far-reaching the addict’s state is, there’s no such thing as a ‘point of no return’. At the Riverside Clinic in Melbourne, all clinicians have a firm commitment to helping addicts reach their full potential. This includes patients of all ages, which means teenagers can access the services too. According to statistics, 15.7% of Australian people have engaged in drug abuse. While this number is high, families and clinicians can work together to reduce it.

To do this, taking a holistic approach is key. With the right interventions and support, an addict can walk away from their program with the strength they need to function as they did before.

To find out more about how the Riverside Clinic can help, reach out on (03) 9699 7529.