If you like to relax using drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. According to national surveys, 83% of the UK population drinks alcohol1, and approximately 35% of the adult population have used drugs at some point in their life2.
However, for a minority of people, frequent substance use can become a problem, be that socially, physically, and/or emotionally. For many addicts, anxiety, depression and serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia can be common. Some may be caused by the addiction themselves and others can be the ‘trigger’ that led to the addiction forming, perhaps as a coping or escape mechanism.
In these cases, we might say that that person has become dependent, or addicted. In rare instances, the impact of substance use can be extremely serious, resulting in permanent brain injury or even death.
Whilst addictions are notoriously hard to beat, the serious impact they have on all aspects of the individual’s life means that early intervention is crucial. The earlier a problem is identified – the better. This is why it is important to seek medical assistance for addictions as soon as possible.
Because alcohol and drug use is so common, it’s not always easy to know when it is becoming a problem. For many people, it is a problem when it starts to feel like a problem, but for others that can be less than obvious. To help you decide, check out the five key indicators of substance dependence below: if they sound like you, it could be time to seek a medical opinion.
Remember, only a medical professional can diagnose an addiction – these points are intended as a guide only.
Firstly, your doctor will want to talk to you about your current life circumstances, including your substance use. They will likely ask you about what substance(s) you use and have used, how often you are using them, how much you are taking, and what happens if you stop. They might ask you to fill in a questionnaire, which can be scored to give an indication of the severity of your symptoms. They may also ask you personal questions, about life when you were growing up, and your family history.
It is important to be honest throughout this process, as the information gathered will be used to help give you the best advice and treatment possible: they are not there to pass judgement or cause you trouble.
Based on the initial consultation, it may be that your doctor wants to run further assessments. Often, this involves giving a urine or spit sample. They may, occasionally, feel that it is important to run other tests. Your doctor will explain which tests you need and why, but these might include an echocardiogram to assess your heart health, or a brain scan in the case of alcohol related seizures, for example. Women of child-bearing age may be offered a pregnancy test, as pregnancy could alter which treatment strategies are preferred.
The prognosis will strongly depend on which substances you are using, how much you are using, and how long you have been using them for. This will affect which treatment you are offered, and how likely it is to be successful. In general, addictions are considered to be treatable, although this is an effortful process that can take a long time. For most, lifetime abstinence is recommended following recovery from an addiction, as evidence shows that even a single episode of substance use can trigger a rapid return to dependency.
You might be offered treatment ranging from brief advice, to psychological therapy, to medication, or a combination of these. For some a detox or residential stay will be the best way for them to ‘get clean’.
The treatment offered will depend largely on the type of substances you are using, the severity of your symptoms, and your personal preferences. Your doctor will be able to discuss the risks and benefits of each treatment choice with you, to help you make your decision.
These are the most commonly used form of treatment for addictions, but the type and duration of therapy offered can vary enormously. If your substance use is considered to be of lower risk, you could be offered psychoeducation - a brief information session about how substances affect your health and wellbeing. For more ingrained, or higher risk habits, you may be offered a course of individual or group therapy. Common types of psychological therapy offered for addictions are motivational interviewing, family therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy.
In some cases you may be offered medication to help you to cope with the effects of withdrawal from a substance. These medications are carefully designed to mimic the effects of the substance in the brain, to help reduce the unpleasant effects of withdrawal. This can make it easier to focus on the psychological treatments, and to develop longer-term coping strategies. Common treatments on offer include buprenorphine and methadone for opioid (heroin) addictions; acamprosate and disulfiram for alcohol; and naltrexone, which can be used to assist both alcohol and opioid withdrawal.
There are also a number of community support services available to help you to recover from your addiction. Depending on your local authority, this could include recovery-based education, mutual-aid groups, or even housing. Many people find it reassuring and motivating to talk to others who know what it is like to fight an addiction, and to tackle it together.
If you think you might be suffering with an addiction and would like specialist mental health support, call 0203 326 9160 to see how we can help.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.
1 The distribution of drinkers in England, 2014
2 UK focal point on drugs, 2014
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