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  • Dr. Devyani Pattebahadur

Substance Abuse in the Youth: How to Identify and Help Loved Ones Dealing With It



the use of something in a way that is wrong or harmful

Substance abuse is a global problem affecting the physical, mental and socio-economic well-being of those affected by drug dependence. The World Health Organization defines substance abuse as the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs. A common misconception is that substance abuse refers only to the consumption of illegal drugs. However, legally available substances such as alcohol, tobacco and even over-the-counter medicines have the potential to lead to substance abuse.

Some known substances with potential for abuse include alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, amphetamine-type stimulants, hallucinogens, inhalants and anabolic steroids.

The Magnitude of the Problem

According to the findings published in the World Drug Report 2022 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cannabis is the world's most used substance. Meanwhile, the most commonly used psychoactive substance in India is alcohol, followed by cannabis and opioids. The UNODC report also mentions that the extent of drug use is higher in youngsters than in adults. It is even more shocking to note that youngsters today have an increased magnitude of drug use than those from previous generations. To put things in perspective, in 2020, 1 in 18 people in the age group of 15-64 years reported having used a drug in the last 12 months, worldwide; that is, 5.6% of the global population or a staggering 284 million people.

The incidence of substance abuse is increasing globally. Children and young adults are more prone to get trapped in the vicious cycle of drug abuse. More than 13% of the people plagued by substance abuse in India are younger than 20 years old. 9 out of 10 people addicted to drugs have a history of starting drug consumption before the age of 18 years. These findings are worrisome and have far-reaching implications for our youth as well as society at large.

Substance abuse can increase the risk of illnesses like liver disease. Furthermore, the risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C is much higher in those who abuse drugs due to high-risk behaviour. This behaviour affects the physical health of individuals, deteriorating the quality of life for the affected individuals and their loved ones. Substance abuse also has a devastating impact on mental health. It can lead to mood disorders, difficulty concentrating, suicidal thoughts and even suicide. There is a correlation between substance abuse and crime. Moreover, engaging in substance abuse puts a strain on the financial and emotional resources of the individual and their family, resulting in dysfunctional relationships.

Why People Turn to Psychoactive Substances

Given the wide range of adverse effects of substance abuse, it is natural to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to this harmful practice. The reasons behind drug use can vary for different people. Peer pressure, stress due to school or work, genetic predisposition and mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are some of the factors that can lead to substance abuse. Some substance abusers may be in denial about the extent of the problem and might not seek help because of a false perception of being under control, while some may feel immense shame and hopelessness that prevents them from reaching out. To deal with the epidemic of substance abuse effectively, we must be able to identify the presence of risk factors and encourage the ones suffering to seek help.

Looking for Signs of Substance Abuse

The warning signs of substance abuse can be physical, behavioural and psychological.

Physical warning signs:

● Sudden changes in weight

● Impairment in coordination

● Slurred speech

● Presence of track marks and bruises on the body

● Unusual smells of breath, body or clothes

● Dishevelled look due to poor personal hygiene

● Bloodshot eyes

● Changes in the size of pupils

● Stains and burn marks over fingers, nails and lips

● Change in sleep habits, leading to insomnia or hypersomnia

Psychological warning signs:

● Mood swings

● Inability to focus or pay attention

● Anxiety, restlessness

● Irritability and aggression

● Paranoia

● Lack of motivation

Behavioural warning signs:

● Withdrawal from family and friends

● Sudden change in attendance and performance at school or work

● Neglecting responsibilities

● Financial distress

● Engaging in high-risk behaviour such as unprotected sex, driving under the influence of drugs, violence

Additionally, possession of drug paraphernalia like cigarette boxes, rolling paper, bongs, burnt spoons, and needles can indicate a substance use problem.

The presence of these signs should raise suspicion of substance abuse. If you or your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it is important to seek professional help right away.

How to Help Someone Dealing with Substance Abuse

Family and friends are usually the first to notice the warning signs of substance abuse. Witnessing a loved one struggle with substance abuse can be harrowing. Reaching out if someone exhibits signs of substance abuse is crucial. The affected individual might deny or downplay the issue; however, expressing your concern without judgement and having a compassionate discussion might help. It can be in the form of a one-on-one conversation or an intervention.

Express your concerns - Many people plagued by substance abuse would not realise the strength of its grip on their lives until it is too late. Confronting the affected individual might make them feel attacked and be counterproductive; speaking from a place of understanding and love and having a non-combative discussion would yield a better response. You can give examples of specific incidents related to their drug abuse to help them understand your apprehensions about their habit.

Listen - It is vital to approach the situation with patience and listen to your loved one instead of simply lecturing them about the consequences of substance abuse. Allowing them to express their feelings might help you to understand the circumstances that caused them to seek drugs. A significant barrier to the fight against substance abuse is denial. Actively listening to your loved one and being supportive might encourage them to acknowledge their pattern of substance abuse.

Offer information about professional help -

An empathetic conversation would help you to reach out to your loved one and motivate them to break out of toxic drug-seeking behaviour. It might be difficult to quit drugs suddenly, especially if there is a history of long-term abuse due to the risk of withdrawal symptoms. Once they are ready to address the problem, offer details about professional help to tackle substance abuse; this includes inpatient and outpatient services such as de-addiction programs, rehabilitation or counselling. The line of treatment includes medication, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), group therapy and treatment of withdrawal symptoms.

You can contact the National Toll-Free Helpline (1800-11-0031) for further information on de-addiction centres and rehabilitation in India. Several non-governmental institutions, such as the Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust, also offer professional services to those struggling with substance abuse.

Encourage new activities - Giving up drugs is a huge change and can be stressful. Participating in new activities and hobbies such as painting, gardening, cooking, or sports will allow the affected individual to manage negative feelings healthily without returning to their old coping mechanisms of abusing substances. Developing new hobbies can reduce the risk of relapse and motivate them to avoid taking drugs.

Establish boundaries - The road to recovery from substance abuse is long and arduous. During this period, it is vital to set boundaries with the affected individual and ensure that they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Instead of trying to protect the abuser, hold them accountable for their actions. Boundaries like not allowing them to use drugs at home, refusing to cover up for absenteeism or poor performance or even refusing to bear the financial burden of their drug use, need to be drawn. Talking to your loved one and discussing what limits need to be set is essential to prevent burnout while supporting them through recovery.


● Be patient. Substance abuse is not a character flaw. The person struggling with substance abuse is still the same; they just need a little extra support to give up the harmful use of psychoactive substances.

● The recovery process can take a long time. During this time, do not enable any problematic behaviours of your loved one. Letting them take responsibility for their actions is essential for their recovery.

The problem is substance abuse, not the person affected by it.

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