Why do people use drugs? It’s an excellent question to think about when you’re as wrapped up in substance abuse education as someone like myself. It’s also a complex issue with no clear or singular answer. I think for my generation a lot of it had to do with DARE lying to us. Simply put, you’re not going to become a heroin addict if you smoke a joint. Without getting into the debate over gateway theory, which I personally think is a flawed way to view addiction in the societal context, fifty-two percent of the American population have tried marijuana while approximately ten percent are, what drugfree.org would consider, addicted. I found this post, another good reference comparing the risk versus resilience factors to teenage use drugs. The purpose of this piece is to explain some of the eight most common reasons why a person might begin experimenting with drugs.
Probably the most common reason for someone to start using drugs, at least recreationally, is so they can fit in with a certain group of peers. Peer pressure is a real thing and a lot of folks begin their career into drug abuse because those around us are using. Being a teenager is hard work and nothing is more terrifying than the thought of being ostracized from your friend group. If someone’s peers are using drugs someone might feel like they’re missing out or that they won’t fit in if they don’t partake. At the end of the day we are social beings so it’s important for us to have feelings of belonging. Remember, “birds of a feather flock together”. It’s interesting that people frequently begin using drugs to fit in when addiction, more than anything, is a lack of community.
For some people drug use starts because they simply enjoy the feeling of getting high. Many drugs make you feel euphoric, resulting in pleasure for a lot of people. Drugs create chemical reactions in the brain causing an overload in the release of dopamine. A person might continue getting high to pursue this sense of euphoria or feeling of release because they enjoy the feeling it brings. Using a substance might make someone feel more confident, calm, or in control of the world around them.
Some drugs (stimulants) enhance brain function and focus while others (steroids) make you stronger. Whether it’s pressure in school or on the job these drugs could be attractive under certain circumstances. Sometimes it’s family demands that cause a person to begin use. For kids with demanding parents the pressure to perform academically or athletically might make drugs seem desirable. For parents balancing work along with raising kids and handling the finances can make something that mellows you out or improves your stamina very appealing. It’s common for people to tie their identity to their career or academic standing. School and careers can put enormous pressure on individuals to perform causing unbearable stress.
Relieve Stress/ Block Pain
This is the most broad reason for use because there are layers behind it being the cause of someone’s initiation into substance abuse. For starters, some people begin using because their doctor prescribed a drug to them to help deal with physical pain, crippling anxiety, or ADD depending on the substance. A lot of people start drug use to self medicate for a variety of reasons. Grieving, undiagnosed mental illness, and masking trauma or abuse are three of the most common. Traumatic events (particularly unresolved ones) can adversely affect a person’s psychology, making it hard to move on. A lot of people begin to use so they can ease the pain or forget painful memories. This is why addiction is so commonly correlated with a person’s adverse childhood experiences (ACE) score.
People struggling with mental illness frequently use drugs to try and help with depression, cope with anxiety, or make sense of their affliction (especially when the illness is undiagnosed). Grief is another common reason for drug use that falls under the umbrella of relieving stress or blocking pain. The death of someone close to you, a family member or a loved one can take an emotional toll on a person. Similarly, the end of a relationship can feel like an event of emotional destruction. People handle grief in different ways. People handle grief in different ways and some turn to drugs as a way to cope or numb the pain.
For whatever reason drugs have a bit of a mysterious aura to them. Perhaps it’s because they’re frequently tabooed or possibly it’s the prospect of altering one’s consciousness. Whatever the case may be people often try drugs out of curiosity. It may be that they hear from friends or peers positive responses about specific drugs. In turn they become intrigued by the experiences so they try them for themselves. This is different from peer pressure because it stems from a sincere curiosity or inclination to experience something new.
Act of Rebellion
With every generation there’s always going to be those individuals inclined to rebel against the status quo of the previous generation. Since the use of drugs is prohibited it appeals to these people who want to partake in them to stick out or appear socially opposed. These folks might use drugs as a phase of their rebellion or it could turn into substance abuse disorder.
Feeling bored or that life is monotonous are pretty common for teens and even young adults. Since they don’t have the responsibilities of a career, bills, or families they might feel that life is kind of boring and drugs might seem like a pleasurable, fun way to pass time. This is particularly true for teens who don’t have a lot of hobbies or have a very small social circle. These kids are also more prone to peer pressure given their reliance on one specific friend group. Using drugs can turn into their favorite method of relieving feelings of boredom instead of participating in other positive activities.
Last but not least (at least for this write up) we have misinformation or plain old ignorance. This was one of the main factors for my descent into substance abuse. I started taking Vicodin because my grandmother gave it to me so I figured it was harmless. Using drugs, particularly drug dependency, come with a lot of consequences. There are financial, emotional, physical, and social tolls which discourages most people from becoming addicted in the first place. Sadly, in spite of the increase in awareness around the risks of using drugs there’s still quite a bit of incorrect information.