Can you describe what a person with an addiction looks like? Can you cite an age, gender, race, profession, or another factor that primes a person to abuse drugs or alcohol?
Chances are, you can’t.
Substance abuse is remarkably common in the United States. In fact, the Surgeon General says, close to 70 percent of Americans abuse substances each year. About 8 percent meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder each year.
Put everyone who abuses substances or needs treatment in one room, and you’ll see people from all walks of life. All ages, socioeconomic groups, and ethnicities would be included. All of them need help, and few of them get it.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says less than 1 percent of those who need addiction care get it at a specialty facility.
How can we heal our community? It starts with understanding that no one is immune to addiction risks. And the more we know about how our backgrounds can influence recovery, the more we’ll heal in treatment programs.
In this article, we’ll cover how addiction interacts with the following:
We’ll also give you a list of resources you can use to conduct your own research.
Researchers have long suggested that men develop addictions more frequently than women do, and men tend to dominate discussions about how substance abuse should be treated.
But as the research has deepened, we’ve learned more about what separates men and women with addictions, and that’s changing both prevention and treatment programs.
Men and women differ in these ways:
Some women feel most comfortable in female-only treatment programs. They may have a history of male abuse, and they may have topics to discuss that don’t seem suitable to share with men.
But other women do just as well in mixed treatment programs. As long as they feel personally safe and their concerns are heard, they have no issue sharing with men.
We often associate substance abuse with youth. We picture carloads of teenagers meeting up in clandestine spots to swill alcohol or light up cigarettes. We know some of these teens won’t be able to stop substance abuse once it starts.
But addictions aren’t just the province of the young. Older people can and do develop substance problems.
About half of all prescription medications are given to the elderly, researchers say. And plenty of those substances have addiction potential, including:
It’s not always easy to spot an older person with an addiction issue, researchers say. Moments of confusion caused by drugs can be blamed on age-related brain changes.
And older adults may not face common consequences seen in younger people, researchers say. They may not lose their jobs, get arrested, or face financial ruin. Their addictions can deepen because people don’t suspect the problem.
Older adults may recover with treatment. Some benefit from programs that include physical care, so they can find new ways to treat the ailments they’ve been self-medicating with drugs. Others appreciate programs made just for seniors, so they can discuss issues, like illness in a spouse or fear of death, with others of a similar age.
Addiction can be driven by genes, and some are closely tied to race. A gene variant seen in Asian people, for example, causes nausea after heavy drinking. That little shift could make alcoholism less likely in this group.
But some addiction choices aren’t influenced by genes as much as culture and systemic racism.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tracks illicit drug use by race/ethnicity. These are drug use statistics from 2013:
Do these numbers vary because of genes or culture? Does a Hispanic person use drugs more frequently than an Asian person due to the influence of genes? Or does the culture that surrounds that person make drug use more permissible?
These are exceedingly difficult questions to answer. Individuals might be exceptions to each rule too, as no one is expected to be a perfect specimen of race. But when discussing addiction and drug use, it’s critical to acknowledge the role of institutional racism and societal expectations.
Sensitive treatment programs move beyond issues of language. Treatment teams can help their patients to understand how disparities among, wealth, education, housings, criminal justice, healthcare and more might shape choices, and they may use elements of the culture to boost healing.
Very few of us sit within the middle class. As traditional blue-collar jobs in manufacturing and resource extraction disappear, some families float to the top of the economic heap and others sink. Both groups face unique addiction risks.
For those in the upper class:
For those in the lower classes:
People in both groups deserve evidence-based addiction care that homes in on the source of the issue and offers therapies that work. But people in poorer communities may not have insurance coverage, and they may face long waitlists for entrance into state-funded treatment programs.
About half of all people with a mental illness will also develop a substance abuse problem, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It can be a matter of genetics. A vulnerability to one means a vulnerability to the other. But sometimes, substances are used as self-medication.
At one point, treatment teams believed in treating one issue first. If someone had an addiction and a mental illness, doctors believed addressing the addiction was critical. That could allow them to:
Unfortunately, this model didn’t always work. Some people were at deep risk of relapse as their mental illnesses worsened without treatment. And some people couldn’t focus on addiction recovery with mental health issues in the way.
Modern programs may blend therapies for both issues, helping people to recover from all that ails them at the same time. Since dual problems are so common in the addiction field, it’s not hard to find a program that uses this blended approach.
A belief in an afterlife and a higher power can be considered protective against substance abuse. Researchers say that religious belief tends to keep people from starting substance abuse in the first place. Those who do start tend not to use much. But the story can be a bit more complicated.
If you’re part of a religious community and you do develop an addiction, it can be harder to ask for help. Will you be outcast from the support you so desperately need? And will you be judged for developing the issue in the first place?
While people in religious communities with addiction may be in the minority, they certainly do need help. And plenty of addiction programs offer components that would appeal to someone with a religious bent.
Some support group programs, like 12-step groups, encourage people to lean on a higher power in the fight against addiction. For people already of a religious persuasion, that could be an easy solution to accept.
We’ve given you many statistics about demographics and religion. But we’re sure you have questions we haven’t answered quite yet. We’ve developed a list of resources that might be helpful for independent research.