There is no denying that addiction and its consequences have a negative effect on the lives of those abusing a particular substance, on those close to them and also on our communities and society as a whole. A lack of willpower, poor socio-economic backgrounds, ease of access to such substances and brain disease have all been named as reasons for addiction to drugs, alcohol, prescription medications and the like. But none of these reasons on their own gives us the full picture or a comprehensive understanding of why some people use psychoactive substances and others don’t; why some people can try them and then move on, yet others continue to use to the point of destruction of their own lives and those around them.

The legislation change around New Psychoactive Substances (NPS, or ‘Legal Highs’) which came into force on 26th May, 2016, seeks to address the destructive behaviour of addiction by prohibiting the substances themselves, but a larger part of the puzzle – Why people use them– remains unanswered and largely misunderstood by society and governments today.

What is addiction?

Addiction, in all its forms; from drugs and alcohol to gambling and pornography; is a compulsion to use, play or view something despite the user knowing it does not help them in any way, knowing that it destroys their lives, yet they simply cannot stop this behaviour by willpower.

Research and study into the area of addiction have uncovered some interesting facts about addiction, disproving some previously held beliefs, such as prohibition being a path to stop or at least slow the use of psychoactive substances, or that better education and family backgrounds can prevent addiction.

Prohibition is not enough

Prohibition on its own is not enough; in fact, it has been shown to escalate levels of addiction, violence and use of illicit substances. Education and family backgrounds also have little to no influence on a person’s disposition to substance misuse and abuse later in life.

So, we cannot predict who will be affected. Addiction affects all socio-economic groups, ages, genders, races, and religions – it is truly non-discriminatory. There is evidence that there is a genetic predisposition towards addiction, passed on in our genes from generation to generation that can be triggered, or exacerbated, by environmental factors such as poverty, familial stresses and breakdowns, socio-economic status and the actual effects of the substance itself.

The behaviour of our immediate ancestry – grandparents and parents – their reactions to both pleasurable and stressful situations have been shown to leave ‘markers’ on our DNA strands which are then passed down to their children, this combined with the learning processes of our early years, for example seeing a parent relieve their stress and anxiety through drinking alcohol or smoking, could further compound tendencies toward addiction.

Addiction is a disease

The British Medical Association now recognises addiction as a medical condition. Each particular type of addiction - alcoholism, drugs and other behaviours - have their own individual chemical drivers and enzyme responses, but all are similar in that the addiction creates changes in the dopamine/serotonin reward system in the brain. As with all medical conditions, addiction has a particular set of symptoms.

“Addiction, like other medical conditions, is progressive – it always gets worse, never better – unless you do something to arrest its progress. It can kill you, and it has a specific set of symptoms such as: tolerance - you need more of the substance to get the same effect; withdrawal, profound withdrawal, which other people wouldn’t get, including shakes and sweats; and craving is the third thing, terrific craving, so much you have to fulfil that craving.
Carolyn Hurley, Manager of Freedom Communities Therapeutic Community explains.

“An addicted person will systematically destroy their support structure because addiction re-wires the brain. Addicts truly do not think “normally” as the substance causes neurological changes and modifies their behaviour by controlling the very chemicals that usually enable us to think and act in our own best interest.

Addiction is a three-fold medical condition. Physical disruption of the brain’s reward system and other neurochemical processes. Cognitive effects in that the affected individual has difficulty in remembering how damaging the episodes of substance use were. This included denial. Finally, Spiritual unrest, not in a religious sense, but where the individual experiences a lack of connection with others, not being able to see a purpose in life and unable to “live life on life’s terms”.

How to find help for addiction

Anyone who has experience of addiction through their own life, family members or friends will know that being told to stop using just doesn’t work, so addicts and their families should seek help such as the treatment we provide at our Therapeutic Community. We help residents to understand why they use, how to change their behaviour and re-programme themselves to live normally in society.”

Although further research continues into why some people become addicted it is clear that just as there is no singular factor that causes addiction, there is no singular response that will make it all alright. It is not a simple matter of banning particularly addictive products, nor is it a matter of just genetics, ‘better upbringings’ or ‘Just Saying NO!’. Addiction is a multifaceted illness that requires treatment of the whole person and a deeper understanding to reduce its harm and hold on the lives of those we love and our communities.

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