Many of us can relate to craving a cup of coffee, or perhaps a sweet treat, when we know we shouldn’t. However, there is often a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to addiction and why people become addicted to certain substances. It is a common belief that people have low moral values and choose to involve themselves in often illicit behaviour. They believe that if they wanted to they could stop their behaviour and they could do so with will power alone.
Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, or other substance, or doing an activity, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. The term addiction does not only refer to dependence on substances such as heroin or cocaine. A person who cannot stop taking a particular drug or chemical has a substance dependence. Some addictions also involve an inability to stop partaking in activities, such as gambling, eating or working.
The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people. However, repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interferes with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a ‘relapsing’ disease.
When a person takes a drug, it can affect the brain’s ‘reward circuit’ by causing euphoria as well as flooding it with the chemical messenger dopamine. A properly functioning reward system motivates a person to repeat behaviours that allow us to thrive, such as eating and spending time with loved ones. Surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but often unhealthy behaviours like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behaviour again and again. As a person continues to use drugs, the brain adapts by reducing the ability of cells in the reward circuit to respond to it. This reduces the high that the person feels compared to the high they felt when first taking the drug. This is an effect known as tolerance and in some cases they may take more of the drug to try and achieve the same high. These brain adaptations often lead to the person becoming less and less able to derive pleasure from other things they once enjoyed; like food, sex, or social activities.
Drug addiction is a chronic disease that is characterised by drug seeking and drug use that is compulsive and difficult to control, despite the harmful consequences. It is often complicated by the fact that the person may suffer from other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. These conditions may be the initial reason that people start taking substances, to improve their mood or their ability to cope with their mental condition.
Stigma and discrimination are a common occurrence in the everyday lives of people living with a substance addiction. Most people who struggle with an addictive disorder will fail to seek treatment in part because of their concern that they will be labelled an addict. Often the medical profession fails to treat addicts properly as many health professionals do not want to ‘deal’ with these types of patients. Even among people who use drugs, stigma toward other people who use drugs can be common.
People who use socially acceptable drugs such as alcohol, may have negative
Cont’d on pg 18
Cont’d from pg 15
prejudices against people who use illegal drugs such as marijuana. People who use illegal so-called ‘soft drugs’ such as marijuana may have negative prejudices against people who use illegal ‘hard’ drugs such as cocaine.
It is important, therefore, to recognise that people who struggle with drug dependence should be afforded the same dignity, respect and support as a person who struggles with any medical condition. It is important to focus on the whole person, not a behaviour. These people are not addicts but individuals who are addicted to drugs.