In this article
Drug addiction remains a serious problem in the UK, with 4,859 deaths due to drug poisoning recorded in England and Wales in 2021 – 6.2% higher than the previous year. Opiate drugs, including heroin and methadone, continue to account for the highest proportion of drug related deaths.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, government statistics show that 275,896 adults were in contact with drug and alcohol treatment services with 130,490 people entering treatment.
If you are concerned that you have a drug or alcohol addiction, or that substance use is having a negative impact on your life, the sooner that you reach out for help the better, both in terms of minimising the damage done and optimising your chances of recovery.
Why do people take addictive drugs?
Taking drugs (including alcohol and nicotine) can affect the way a person feels, behaves or experiences the world around them. Drugs can affect people both mentally and physically. In a drug haze people may experience feelings of euphoria, strength, relaxation or total numbness.
Many people use drugs to escape from past trauma, to deal with social problems (such as poverty, homelessness or unemployment) or to help them when they are feeling low. Others simply take them because they enjoy the thrill or the high that they get from drug use.
Drug use becomes addiction when users are no longer fully in control of the decision to take drugs or not. This is when taking drugs becomes a kind of compulsion.
Drug addicts may continue to take addictive drugs for various reasons, such as:
- To alleviate the uncomfortable and painful symptoms their body experiences when they start to crave drugs (physical addiction).
- Out of a habit, boredom or compulsion.
- Due to social issues (such as being surrounded by other users).
- Because they are chasing the initial ‘high’ that they got when they first tried the drug.
- They have developed a psychological addiction.
Using drugs can impair your ability to perform normal day-to-day functions such as driving a car, working safely at your job or caring for your children. Having drug dependency issues may result in the unwanted involvement of officials in your life, such as social services or the police.
Drug addiction poses a risk to the addict but can also have an impact on their loved ones and friends, as well as wider society.
The types of addictive drugs
There are many different types of drugs available today, and some may be so commonplace that we forget they are even addictive substances.
Here are a few of the main types of addictive drugs:
- Crack cocaine.
- Opioid painkillers (codeine, tramadol, morphine etc).
- Benzodiazepines (common sedatives such as Valium or Xanax).
- Simulants (such as those used to control ADHD).
Sometimes a legitimate prescription is obtained for medication that leads to the person taking the prescription medicine developing an addiction to it; this is especially true in the case of people becoming addicted to opioid pills that they take to deal with pain. Sometimes this can escalate to harder drug use, such as moving from opioid based pain pills to heroin.
In other cases, people will illegally sell drugs, that were originally obtained with a prescription from a doctor, for people to misuse.
Alcohol is one of the most widely used drugs in the UK and its ‘legal’ status means that people sometimes fail to see its dangers. Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, can cause life-threatening health issues, including liver failure, and being an alcoholic can have a huge impact on a person’s wellbeing, performance at work and their relationships with others.
Heroin, a potent opiate, is possibly the drug that we most widely associate with addiction. Heroin addiction is highly stigmatised in society, mainly due to the very obvious physical effects it has and its correlation with societal taboos (such as robbery, sex work and homelessness).
Not all heroin addicts fit into this stereotype, however, with some ‘functioning’ addicts able to hold down a job and hide their addiction from loved ones. Nevertheless, opiates remain highly problematic drugs, with them being mentioned in almost half (45.7%) of all drug related deaths in 2021, accounting for 2,219 deaths that year alone.
Cocaine, a class A drug once associated with the rich and famous, is now the UK’s second most widely used illegal drug (after cannabis). It is highly addictive, especially in its most smokable form known as ‘crack cocaine’ or simply ‘crack’.
Cocaine users have been known to use the drug socially, as a ‘party drug’; however, some users will become unintentionally addicted to the substance.
This can have a significant impact on a person’s:
- Finances (as it is an expensive drug to buy).
- Health (cocaine is linked to heart and cardiovascular problems as well as damage to the nasal cavities if snorted).
- Personal life.
Prescription drug abuse is increasingly becoming an issue in the UK and is already a serious problem in America. There is a perception that prescription drugs are safe and non-addictive which can lead to increased denial once a person does become addicted to them.
Anabolic steroids are prescription-only medicine that can cause serious side effects and addiction when misused. Steroids are class C drugs that are sometimes used as performance enhancing drugs and by people who want to unnaturally increase their muscle mass.
Steroid abuse has many negative physical and psychological effects, plus it comes with all of the same risks as any other drug that is injected by needle without medical supervision.
What are the risk factors of becoming a drug addict?
Anyone can become a drug addict and addiction pervades all social classes, genders, age groups and is an issue in countries across the globe.
However, there are some risk factors that are associated with addiction, which include:
- Family history of addiction.
- Mental health issues (especially undiagnosed issues).
- Taking drugs at an early age.
- Using a highly addictive substance.
- Lack of support from family, friends and society.
Drug addiction is stigmatised in society, although an increasing number of key figures now suggest addiction should be treated as a health issue first, rather than a social issue. The fact is very few individuals set out to become addicts.
It is vital that help and support is available and widely accessible to tackle the issue head on, rather than further stigmatising addiction.
What are the signs and symptoms of drug addiction?
If you are continuing to take drugs despite them having a detrimental effect on you, it is possible that you have become a drug addict.
Addictive drugs may be negatively affecting:
- Your health (mental or physical) including weight loss and mood swings.
- Family life.
- Relationships and friendships.
- Ability to parent.
- Sleep patterns.
If you are continuing to take drugs despite knowing the negative effects that they are having on you, then it may be time to consider getting some help.
Similarly, if the idea of facing your life without drugs is scary, you are struggling with day-to-day life or managing your emotions or you feel that your drug use is getting out of control, you should reach out for help.
Drug users should take notice when:
- Others (such as friends or family) point out that there seems to be a problem.
- A GP suggests that some form of drug treatment is needed or that addiction is an issue.
- They experience withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug for a period of time.
- They begin to obsess over getting drugs or when they can next take them.
- They use deceptive behaviour (lying, denial, avoidance).
- The drug is prioritised above self-care, personal hygiene or personal responsibilities.
The physical symptoms of drug withdrawal can vary, but may include:
Some drugs can also be highly psychologically addictive.
What are the risks associated with drug addiction?
Drug addiction may affect people differently depending on the drug in question, how severe their addiction is, whether they have other comorbidities and the level of support they have around them.
A person who has become addicted to caffeine, for example, may experience headaches and tiredness and may struggle to feel alert without the drug. Although a reliance on caffeine to perform normal day-to-day functions is not good for the human body, it is unlikely to result in any kind of downward spiral for the addict.
Heroin, on the other hand, is one of the most addictive drugs out there and its use has a strong correlation with poor health, crime and overdose.
Some of the common risks that are associated with drug addiction include:
- Health issues (mental and physical).
- Poor decision-making.
- Anti-social behaviour.
- Illegal activity (which can lead to prosecution).
What to do if you are addicted to drugs
If you are addicted to drugs you are entitled to free NHS drug treatment in the UK. You may also opt for alternative or private treatment if you have the funds to do so.
People are more likely to successfully complete drug treatment and remain drug free if they have a strong support network around them. There must, however, first be a commitment from the addict themselves to address the issue; this begins by acknowledging that there is an addiction issue present.
If you are addicted to drugs, you should reach out for help. You can do this by making an appointment with your GP who will be able to signpost you to relevant services. You can also reach out to a specialist hotline who deal with drug related issues such as Frank for confidential advice.
In an emergency, such as a suspected drug overdose or drug-related mental health crisis, always dial 999 to get help from emergency services.
How is drug addiction treated?
Drug addiction may be treated in different ways depending on the drug in question, the nature of the addiction and the services that are available in the area.
Options may include:
- Drug counselling/therapy.
- Rehabilitation (often referred to as rehab).
- Medical treatment via a drug substitute.
- Help from charities.
Counselling or therapy (such as talking therapies or CBT) may be helpful to get to the root of the issues that may have caused the addiction in the first place. If drugs are being used to deal with past trauma or mental health issues, unless these issues are addressed and some healthier coping mechanisms are adopted, the cycle of drug addiction is unlikely to be broken.
Rehabilitation is most effectively done as an in-patient, in a controlled, clinical environment under the supervision of experts and doctors. Rehab involves the addict making a commitment to remain in a treatment facility for a specified period of time, refrain from any drug activity and engage with a programme of various treatments.
Which could include:
- Behavioural therapies – This might include group or individual sessions, CBT, music, art, meditation, exercise.
- Detox – This is when an addict abstains from using drugs for a period of time and allows the drugs and drug effects to exit their system.
- Medication – This can be used to support recovering addicts as they withdraw from drug use.
- Monitoring – During the rehabilitation process, recovering addicts should be regularly checked and monitored by accredited professionals. This ensures that they remain as healthy as possible and that they are getting the most out of the experience.
The NHS can sometimes cover the costs of in-patient rehabilitation, although to skip the long waiting lists those with the financial means will usually opt to attend a private facility.
Your GP will be able to advise you on what free services are available to you and help you to find the best option for treatment. The process must always begin with an addict deciding that they are going to engage with getting help for their addiction, or it will most certainly fail.
Sometimes medicine is prescribed to addicts to help them with their drug addiction. Most notably, methadone can be prescribed to heroin addicts to help them with their withdrawal symptoms. Methadone is a synthetic opioid that can be prescribed by a doctor to help addicts to detox and come off heroin altogether.
Methadone is also an addictive substance; therefore, it needs to be taken under medical supervision only, with the goal to gradually reduce the dose until it can be stopped entirely. It can have side effects and can be dangerous when mixed with other drugs. Alternative medicines are available that have a similar function, such as Subutex, another man-made opioid that can act as a substitute for opiate drugs.
Once someone has become addicted to drugs, if they wish to stay drug free, it is something that they need to make a lifelong commitment to.
This may mean:
- Continuing to attend therapy or group meetings.
- Avoiding certain triggers (including people and places).
- Changing their social circle.
- Finding new (healthy) ways to deal with stresses or problems.
- Moving to a new area.
- Abstaining from drugs and/or alcohol for life.
It is very much possible to face and conquer an addiction to drugs; however, many ex-addicts will relapse at some point during their lives and have to face the process of coming off drugs once again. Rather than being a source of shame or stigma, it is important to remember that there are services out there to help people at all stages of their journey to an addiction-free life.