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By Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe

Chief Executive Officer

Drug abuse is an illness

When your dependency on drugs becomes unmanageable and starts causing problems, it is essential to ask for help.

Substance abuse disorder is also known as drug addiction. It is the inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medicine. It is a mental health disorder.

When we talk of drugs we usually mean things like alcohol, marijuana and nicotine but prescribed medicine is also drugs and also prone to abuse. When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.

Many people start with experimental use of recreational drugs in social situations, and, for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. Unfortunately, for others, particularly with opioids, drug addiction begins when they take prescribed medicines from a doctor.

The risk of addiction and how fast you become addicted varies by drug. Some drugs, such as opioid painkillers, have a higher risk and cause addiction more quickly than others.

Physical addiction appears to occur when repeated use of a drug changes the way your brain feels pleasure. The addicting drug causes physical changes to some nerve cells (neurons) in your brain.

Neurons use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate. These changes can remain long after you stop using the drug.

Addict young woman have meeting with  dealer in abandoned building. Picture: iStock
Many people start with experimental use of recreational drugs and for some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. Picture: iStock

Recognising the need for help and support

With time some people may need larger doses of the drug to get high or even just to feel good. Then life becomes difficult when they have no access to the drug.

When one tries to stop drug using, they then experience intense cravings and actually become physically ill. These are called withdrawal symptoms. If you feel your drug use is out of control or causing problems in your life, it is time to get help.

Talk with your health care provider or see a mental health provider, or even a rehabilitation centre. There are a few available, private and public ones. People struggling with addiction usually deny they have a problem, and often hesitate to seek treatment.

An intervention presents a loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.

It’s important to plan an intervention carefully. It may be done by family and friends in consultation with a health care provider or mental health professional or a rehabilitation centre.

ALSO READ: 5 Reasons why laughter is the best medicine

Drug dealer selling pills,marijuana and cocaine. Picture: iStock
Many different factors may contribute to the development of drug addiction. Picture: iStock


Many different factors may contribute to the development of drug addiction, just like many mental health disorders. The main factors are:

The environment. Environmental factors – including your family’s beliefs and attitudes, your community, the type of friends you keep – may expose you to drugs.

Genetics. Once you’ve started using a drug, the development into addiction may be influenced by inherited (genetic) traits, which may delay or speed up the disease progression.

Risk factors

Anyone can become addicted to drugs irrespective of your age, sex, race or economic status. Factors that put you at risk include:

Family history of addiction. If you have a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with alcohol or drug addiction, you are at greater risk of developing an addiction.

Mental health disorder. If you have a mental health disorder such as depression, ADHD or post-traumatic stress disorder, you’re more likely to become addicted to drugs. Using drugs can become a way of coping with painful feelings, such as anxiety, depression and loneliness, and can make these problems worse.

Peer pressure. This is particularly for young people.

Dysfunctional family dynamics. Difficult family situations or lack of a bond with your parents or siblings may increase the risk of addiction, as can a lack of parental supervision.

Early use. Using drugs at an early age can cause changes in the developing brain, and increase the likelihood of progressing to addiction.

Highly addictive drugs consumption. Stimulants, cocaine or opioid painkillers may result in faster development of addiction than others. Smoking or injecting drugs can increase the potential for addiction.

A depressed woman beside a lot of pills on a table. Picture: iStock
Anyone can become addicted to drugs irrespective of your age, sex, race or economic status. Picture: iStock


The short-term and long-term effects of drug use can be significant and damaging. Taking some drugs can be particularly risky, especially if you take high doses or combine them with other drugs or alcohol.

Here are some examples:

Opiates and cocaine are highly addictive and cause many short-and long-term health consequences, including psychotic behaviour, seizures or death due to overdose.

GHB and flunitrazepam or “date rape drugs” may cause sedation, confusion and memory loss. These drugs are known to impair the ability to resist unwanted contact and recollection of the event. At high doses, they can cause seizures, coma and death.

MDMA, also known as ecstasy, can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. A severe spike in body temperature can result in liver, kidney or heart failure, and death. Other complications can include severe dehydration, leading to seizures. Long-term MDMA can damage the brain.

Due to the toxic nature of inhalants, users may develop brain damage of different levels of severity. Sudden death can occur even after a single exposure.

Drug dependence can create several dangerous and damaging complications, including:

HIV and other infections risk. Through unsafe sex or by sharing needles with others.

Accidents. People who are addicted to drugs are more likely to drive or do other dangerous activities while under the influence.

Suicide. People who are addicted to drugs die by suicide more often than those who aren’t.

Two young women hugging in support group meeting. Picture: iStock
Two young women hug in a support group meeting. Picture: iStock


The best way to prevent drug addiction is not to use drugs. If your doctor has prescribed a drug, please follow instructions strictly.

Do not adjust the doses or frequency by yourself. Take these steps to help prevent drug misuse in children:

Communicate. Talk to your children about the risks.

Listen. Be a good listener when your children talk about peer pressure and be supportive of their efforts to resist it.

Set a good example. Don’t misuse alcohol or drugs. Children of parents who misuse drugs are at greater risk of drug addiction.

Strengthen the bond. Work on your relationship with your children.

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