Substance Abuse Definition

Dealing with the fallout of substance abuse is among the most difficult things someone can experience in life. The disorders rob individuals of life’s greatest treasures: friends, family, romantic relationships, and so much more. These substance abuse issues can come out of nowhere and create immeasurable devastation for anyone in their path. Unfortunately, that equates to millions of people annually. Though many outside observers are quick to encapsulate such scenarios as the byproduct of poor life choices, the reality of the situation is far more nuanced. In fact, there are potentially thousands of reasons why someone would choose to use drugs or alcohol — and thousands more that could unconsciously drive them to do so.

Before getting into the definition of substance abuse, it is best to comprehend the two factors making it up: substances and abuse. The first of the two, a substance, can be referring to any number of items. From heroin to simple table sugar, substances are things that are both easily accessible or manufactured illicitly in black market laboratories. For the sake of this discussion, these compounds will stick to substances classified as drugs or drug-like products. A list of commonly used and misused drugs include:

  • Prescription opioids: oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet, Vicodin, tramadol, Lortab, Demerol, codeine, morphine, Suboxone, and methadone.
  • Illegal opioids: powered fentanyl, heroin, carfentanil, and opium.
  • Benzodiazepines: Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan
  • Cocaine and crack
  • Marijuana, K2, Spice
  • Alcohol
  • Sleep aids
  • Antidepressants
  • Amphetamines and methamphetamine
  • PCP, LSD, MDMA, and bath salts
  • Over-the-counter medicine
  • Household cleaners
  • Tobacco products
  • Inhalants such as spray paint and gasoline

A list such as this is always expanding as new substances emerge — or refined use methods of old substances evolve. This is especially true in places like Colorado, the state with the third highest drug usage in the country, which are considered more progressive in regards to substances overall.

The second part of the equation, abuse, is an umbrella term for the mistreatment of others to obtain some ill-gotten benefit. Most people do not have a positive reaction to the term, and rightly so. Others may even have their own traumas triggered by its mention. Abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, criminal, and more. In addition, anyone can be the target of its malice, but certain populations are more susceptible than others such as women, children, minorities, the LGBTQ community, the homeless, and the elderly. The practice has an extreme effect on those who use substances, too. In fact, having a traumatic experience in one’s life leaves that individual highly vulnerable to developing a substance abuse problem down the road. Time and time again, researchers have proven that abuse begets abuse.

Substance Abuse Definition | What is Substance Abuse?
Together, substances and abuse form the ill-fated: substance abuse. This term is characterized by a patterned misuse of a habit-forming compound. The addictive quality of said substances is what turns a short-term use into a long-term problem. To get as specific as possible, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines substance abuse as follows:

Substance abuse: excessive use of a drug (such as alcohol, narcotics, or cocaine); use of a drug without medical justification

The latter part of this definition is worth noting. To reiterate from the substance explanation, substance abuse is not singularly in reference to using illegal drugs. Millions of Americans overuse or self-medicate themselves with physician-prescribed medications every day.

Because substances and abuse go hand-in-hand, it should come as little surprise why a term like substance abuse would exist. However, that may not be the case for much longer. For years, two separate phrases were used to describe instances of substance use: substance abuse and substance dependence. These terms were not identical, instead, it was best to think of them as part of a spectrum. Substance abuse turns into substance dependence, and substance dependence becomes a full-blown addiction. Substance dependence is no longer a common expression.

It wasn’t simply for the sake of brevity that “substance dependence” went away. As mentioned above, the word “abuse” comes with myriad connotations that have nothing to do with those who use drugs. Abuse is too often seen as synonymous with “abuser.” Suddenly, people who may have never hurt another person in their life are lumped into the same category as domestic abusers, rapists, and child molesters. Using labels such as abuser or addict is not the correct vernacular anymore. It is far better to adopt “substance use” into one’s vocabulary and, ultimately, remove substance abuse entirely.

No one wants to be defined by their substance use or abuse, and they don’t have to be. There are endless resources available online and in person to help anyone begin their own journey. In the end, someone dealing with substance abuse today will be able to redefine themselves for the better tomorrow.

Substance Abuse Definition | What Is Substance Abuse?
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