Substance Use Myths: National Drug And Alcohol Facts Week

Updated October 3, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content warning: This article mentions topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with questions you may have.

National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week is a wonderful opportunity to dispel myths and dismantle misconceptions about substance use. In celebration of National Drug and Alcohol Stats Week, we have debunked 8 common myths about substance use for you to share with your friends, family, and members of your community.

Alcohol And Prescription Facts

Myth 1. Substance Use Disorders Are The Same Thing As Addictions

Start off National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week right by making sure you are using all the correct terminology. One of the most misunderstood terms is ‘substance use disorders’. Oftentimes, people confuse the terms substance use disorder and addiction. Here’s more information on what they both are and what separates the two:

What Are Substance Use Disorders?

Substance use disorders are a specific diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Substance use disorders include specific categories such as alcohol use disorder, tobacco use disorder, opioid use disorder and more. There are 11 diagnostic criteria to diagnose a substance use disorder and the number of criteria a person meets, determines the severity of their substance use disorder. If someone meets two or three of the criteria, that puts them in the category of having a “mild” substance use disorder. Four to five is considered moderate and more than six is considered “severe.” You can learn more about the criteria in diagnosing a substance or alcohol use disorder on the The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

What Is Addiction?

NIDA defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”  Addiction is not a specific diagnosis in the DSM-5 but rather, the most severe form of a substance use disorder. That means someone with an addiction meets at least 6 of the criteria for a substance use disorder. While an addiction is a chronic and severe substance use disorder, effective treatment, like behavioral and pharmaceutical therapies, can help those with addiction in their recovery journey.

Myth 2. Substance Use Disorders Are Rare

Substance Use Disorders are more common than you may think. The CDC reports that in any given month about 12% of the population over the age of 12 will have used illicit drugs. Furthermore, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that almost 8% of Americans over the age of 18 had a substance use disorder. That means that many of us have experience with substance use disorders, whether it’s our own lived experience with alcohol or substances or being impacted as a friend or family member of someone with a substance use disorder. And anyone, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, race, job or economic standing can be affected by alcohol and substance use. 

Myth 3. Binge Drinking Isn’t As Big Of A Deal As Drug Use

The severity of a substance use disorder isn’t dependent on the type of substance you use. Any type of substance use disorder can be severe. In 2019, about 26% of people over the age of 18 reported they have engaged in binge drinking alcohol within the last month. It may seem like this behavior is harmless, but it can have lasting consequences. The cost to someone’s health from binge drinking alcohol can be enormous, as well as on their relationships. Binge drinking alcohol can cause family members to grow frustrated with each other, and sow seeds of distrust in a relationship. For example, a person who is binge drinking alcohol may be frustrated that a family member is so concerned about their actions, when they felt like they were just having fun. The family member might feel like the person binge drinking alcohol doesn’t take their concerns seriously or see the potential consequences of their actions. This alcohol use can cause couples to split, family members to fight, or friends to grow distant.    

Myth 4. Addiction Demonstrates A Lack Of Willpower To Change

Trying to stop using a substance is about much more than just having a strong will to change behavior. In fact, a study published on the National Institute of Health website found, through the use of brain imaging, that drug or alcohol addiction causes physical changes to your brain. Specifically, the study found that drug use can cause “important derangements in many areas, including pathways affecting reward and cognition.” This change in brain chemistry helps to explain why a person may still struggle with substance or alcohol use even if they desperately want to change their behavior. However, effective treatments, such as behavioral therapy, is available to help navigate this illness and learn to rebuild relationships.

Myth 5. Relapsing Is Failing

Relapse is not failure, it’s a rather likely part of recovery. If we don’t see it as a failure when someone with asthma has another asthma attack after receiving treatment — why do we see it as a failure when someone with substance use disorder has recurring symptoms? A relapse of drug or alcohol use is a sign that something within a treatment plan needs to be changed. For example, maybe there is a need for added therapy appointments or a lifestyle adjustment is in order. Recovery is not linear, and the goal is not perfection, but to keep moving forward even when faced with setbacks. 

Myth 6. Scare Tactics Are An Effective Method To Prevent Children From Using Drugs and Alcohol

SAMHSA states that the use of scare tactics is largely ineffective in substance and alcohol use prevention. So if you can’t scare children out of using drugs and alcohol, what can you do? This study found that personality testing related to hopelessness, anxiety sensitivity, impulsivity, and sensation seeking can actually identify children at risk for substance use at about 90% accuracy. Testing like this may be an effective way to identify children who may struggle with substance or alcohol use and get them the help they need before they begin using alcohol or substances. As this study shows, instead of using scare tactics, a more effective strategy for preventing children from substance and alcohol use is creating space for open dialogues and seeking therapy for mental illness and past trauma a child may have faced.

Myth 7. Mental Illness and Substance Use Are Two Separate Issues

Oftentimes, multiple mental illnesses coexist at the same time. This is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. In order to help someone with a mental illness like substance use disorder, it’s often necessary to address other mental illnesses at the same time. The National Alliance on Mental Health says cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a useful tool for those with dual diagnoses that include substance use disorder. One reason for this is because CBT helps change harmful patterns of thinking. This change may then lead to a decreased risk of substance use. 

Myth 8. All Americans Have Equal Access To Drug And Alcohol Treatment Options

Research shows that 60% of rural America has a mental health provider shortage. Rural America also tends to have  less access to diverse and specialized treatment options for substance use disorders. One of the ways to combat shortages and lack of diverse care is through telehealth options. BetterHelp therapists offer up-to-date, science-based services to reach people with substance use disorders wherever they are, from the comfort of their own home. Because online therapy is discreet and confidential, it is also a great option for many who don’t want to seek treatment for substance use because they are worried people in their life might view them differently if they knew they were seeking help. 

”Julissa is my lifeline to sobriety. I always know that she is there to assist me. She’s honest and to the point. She helps me to see other aspects of my behavior that I either could not see or refuse to see. Thank you, Julissa!” 

Most studies show that individual counseling is an effective intervention for substance use disorders. There are numerous reasons online therapy is a useful tool for those experiencing substance use disorder. For one, licensed therapists understand the myths surrounding substance use disorder and understand that substance use disorder is in fact a disorder, not a choice or personal failure. Furthermore, therapists won’t become frustrated with an individual during relapse because they understand that relapse is often part of the recovery journey. This means a therapist can be a safe place to express what is actually going on and find ways to move forward, rather than reliving the past.

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