Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs like opioid painkillers are consumed safely in various scenarios in the United States. Doctors will oversee prescriptions, and adults are legally allowed to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Many states are legalizing marijuana, too, especially for medical use to treat chronic conditions. While intoxicating substances can be consumed in some instances without long-term negative consequences, millions of adults and adolescents in the country struggle with substance abuse and addiction. So, how does one know when substance abuse starts and when one should seek treatment?
Too many people, unfortunately, assume that a person struggling with addiction must hit “rock bottom” before they truly need help. The concept of “rock bottom” is very dangerous, as financial struggles, serious health consequences, homelessness, loss of important personal relationships, and worsening mental health problems make treating addiction more difficult. A person may struggle with side effects from substance abuse for years. Instead, being aware of the signs of addiction can help a person know when to seek treatment before they struggle with mental, emotional, and physical damage.
DSM-5 Substance Use Disorder Criteria
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has updated its list of criteria to diagnose an addiction. As of the publication of this edition, there are 11 criteria to help clinicians diagnose addiction and develop treatment plans. A mild addiction involves between two and four of these criteria; a moderate addiction demonstrates between four and six of these signs; and a severe addiction requires six or more of the conditions on the list to be present. The person must struggle with addiction symptoms for at least one year.
- Abusing the substance for longer, or in larger amounts, than originally intended
- Wanting to cut down or stop, but being unable to
- Spending a lot of time acquiring, abusing, and/or recovering from the drug
- Cravings and urges to abuse substances
- Being unable to meet work, education, family, and/or social responsibilities due to intoxication or deciding to abuse the drug instead
- Continuing to abuse substances, even when personal relationships are negatively affected or lost
- Giving up, or avoiding, specific activities that were once considered fun
- Abusing substances even when in danger due to intoxication
- Continuing to abuse the substance, even when physical or mental health worsens due to consistent intoxication
- Needing more of the drug to achieve the original high (tolerance)
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not intoxicated (dependence)
If reading this list causes concern for yourself or a loved one, it may be time to seek addiction treatment. This begins with finding a therapist or physician who specializes in addiction, in order to get an appropriate diagnosis and begin a treatment plan. These medical professionals can help individuals understand what addiction is, how to get evidence-based help, and how to begin the long-term recovery process.
Detox, therapy through a rehabilitation program, and long-term social support are all integral aspects of overcoming addiction.
Although addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, there is help available to stop abusing drugs and get healthy. Acknowledging potential signs of a substance use disorder and destigmatizing diagnosis and treatment will make it easier for those who need help to seek out the best possible treatment before struggling with chronic health issues like damage to internal organs and changes to mental wellbeing.