Substance Use Myths: National Drug And Alcohol Facts Week

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated March 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Note: If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, on the third full week of March each year, allows communities to dispel myths and dismantle misconceptions about substance use. As studies show the importance of destigmatizing mental health, learning more about the facts surrounding substance use disorders and addiction can help you make an impact in your community.

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Myth #1: Substance Use Disorders Are The Same As An Addiction

Start National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week using the correct terminology to refer to substance use. Many individuals may confuse the terms "substance use disorder" and "addiction." However, these terms can differ.

What Are Substance Use Disorders?

Substance use disorders comprise a category of mental illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This category includes several mental illnesses, including alcohol use disorder, tobacco use disorder, opioid use disorder, and others. 

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 for diagnosing a substance or alcohol use disorder on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

What Is Addiction?

NIDA defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by compulsive substance seeking and use despite adverse consequences. Addiction is not a specific diagnosis in the DSM-5 but the most severe form of a substance use disorder. Someone experiencing addiction meets at least six criteria for a substance use disorder. While addiction is a chronic and severe substance use disorder, effective treatment, like behavioral and pharmaceutical therapies, may support those living with addiction in their recovery.

Myth #2: Substance Use Disorders Are Rare

Substance use disorders are common. The CDC reports that in any given month, about 13% of the population over 12 will have used illicit drugs. Furthermore, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that almost 8% of Americans over 18 had a substance use disorder. Many individuals have lived experiences with substance use disorders, whether through witnessing friends or family members or struggling with this condition yourself. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, job, or economic standing, can be affected by substance use disorders. 

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Myth #3: Binge Drinking Isn't As Bad 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 18 reported engaging in binge drinking alcohol within the last month. Binge drinking can have lasting mental and physical health consequences. Binge drinking can impact the heart, circulation, brain, and liver. In addition, the symptoms of substance use disorders may cause challenges in relationships. 

In addition, an individual experiencing an alcohol dependency may struggle to see why others are concerned with their behavior. A family member might feel that the person who is binge drinking alcohol doesn't take their concerns seriously or that they don't see or care about the potential consequences of their actions. This alcohol use can cause couples to split, family members to argue, or friends to grow distant.  

In addition, individuals can overdose on alcohol, and alcohol can cause death. Over time, binge drinking can cause long-term complications, body changes, and mental health challenges. If you are considering tapering off alcohol or another substance, contact a medical doctor for support as you detox to have medical intervention during any potential withdrawal symptoms. 

Myth #4: Addiction Demonstrates A Lack Of Willpower To Change

Trying to stop using a substance can be more challenging than choosing to use willpower. A study published on the National Institute of Health website found through brain imaging that drug or alcohol addiction causes physical changes to your brain. Specifically, the study found that drug use can cause "derangements in many areas, including the pathways affecting reward and cognition."

This change in brain chemistry can explain why a person may struggle with substance or alcohol use while wanting to change their behavior or seeing the impacts it has on their life. However, effective treatments, such as behavioral therapy, are available to help clients navigate substance use and learn to rebuild relationships.

Myth #5: Relapsing Is Failing

Relapse is often considered a part of recovery. Recurring symptoms can occur in many physical illnesses, and they may also occur with substance use disorders. A relapse of drug or alcohol use may signify a need for a change in treatment or a new symptom to address. Lifestyle adjustments, more frequent appointments, or further suggestions for care may be beneficial in these cases. Recovery may not be a linear process for everyone. How a relapse is handled can make a difference, and reducing shame and guilt may allow individuals to continue their treatment despite any setbacks.


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

SAMHSA states that scare tactics are ineffective in substance and alcohol use prevention. One study found that personality testing related to hopelessness, anxiety sensitivity, impulsivity, and sensation seeking can identify children at risk for substance use at around 90% accuracy.

Testing in communities and schools may identify children who could struggle with illicit substances or alcohol use and implement prevention strategies like counseling and education early. As the study shows, instead of using scare tactics, a more effective method for preventing children from substance and alcohol use is creating space for open dialogues and access to therapy for mental illness and past trauma a child may have faced.

Myth #7: Mental Illness And Substance Use Are Two Separate Issues

Often, multiple mental illnesses co-exist. This occurrence is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. To help someone with a mental illness like substance use disorder, therapists may address other mental illnesses at the same time. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a valuable tool for those with dual diagnoses. CBT helps change unwanted patterns of thinking to 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 connection 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. Online therapists through platforms like BetterHelp offer up-to-date, evidence-based services to reach people with substance use disorders wherever they are, from the comfort of their homes. Because online therapy is discreet, it may be an option for those who don't want to seek treatment for substance use out of shame or fear of others knowing what they're going through.   

Various studies have confirmed online therapy's effectiveness in treating those living with substance use disorders. In a literature review of 50 studies on telemedicine approaches, researchers found that most studies fully supported these interventions and that participants were enthusiastic supporters of the delivery method. 

Many studies show that individual online counseling is an effective intervention for substance use disorders. Online therapists can offer a safe space for clients to share their experiences. In addition, if you're uncomfortable speaking to a therapist over the phone or via video chat, you can choose to attend live chat messaging sessions each week.

”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!” 


Millions of people have made progress in recovering from substance use disorders, and many live healthy, fulfilling lives by using empowering strategies for coping with stress, noticing impulses, and creating a gap between urges and automatic responses. A therapist can be beneficial as you take the first steps toward addressing a substance use disorder. Consider reaching out to get started and find guidance this year for National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week and beyond.

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