Substance abuse takes a toll on the entirety of a person. From broken relationships to cancerous tumors, the aftermath of addiction can take many forms. Researchers are continuously working to determine all the effects that drugs can have on an individual, ranging from physical health to emotional wellbeing. While understanding the side effects is useful in general, it is especially necessary to determine which of these consequences one can recover from after sobriety and which are permanent. Understanding the differences between the severity of each consequence will assist clinicians in creating focused treatment plans that will reap the most benefits for the patients. According to the literature, it seems that the emotional, interpersonal and social consequences of substance abuse are reversible while the physical consequences are for the most part permanent.
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To begin, the consequences of substance abuse can be severe but they are not always permanent. One aspect often altered by addiction is the user’s emotional health. In an epidemiological study across Europe, it was determined that there is a strong positive correlation between anxiety and substance abuse disorders as well as between depression and substance abuse disorders. There also seemed to be a direct relationship between the severity of the substance abuse and the number of comorbid disorders (Merikangas et al, 1998). These results have been verified by other sources as well. In 2011, the National Institute of Health found that 27.6 % of mentally ill adults in that year were also diagnosed with alcohol abuse disorder (Abuse, 2014). This data indicates that substance abuse is highly correlated with mental illness, however it does not give information on if the mental illness is curable once sobriety is reached. There is a lot less information in the literature on this topic compared to the comorbidity during abuse, however it is clear that there is a possibility of reversing the mental and emotional impacts of substance abuse. The strategies to achieve this coincide with normal mental health treatment. In fact, most treatment programs for comorbid substance use and mental illness focus on both disorders simultaneously. In a meta-analysis comparing dual vs individual treatment programs, there seemed to be greater success when the substance abuse and mental illness are treated simultaneously (Drake, Mercer-McFadden, Mueser, McHugo, & Bond, 1998). In general, individuals with more than one psychiatric disorder take longer to recover than those with just one, however there is the same success rate for recovery (Rohde, Clarke, Lewinsohn, Seeley, & Kaufman, 2001). Overall, substance abuse does often coincide with poor emotional and mental health, however this side effect can be reversed with a focused treatment plan that looks at both disorders at once.
To continue, substance abuse disorders are known to have a negative impact on the user’s interpersonal relationships. In a literary review, substance use was deemed a cause for divorce in around 11% of the participants. In fact, it was the third most common reason for divorce after infidelity and incompatibility (Amata & Previti, 2003). Aside from divorce, substance abuse takes a large toll on parent-child relationships as well. A 2018 study found that parental substance abuse is correlated with “child adversity” as well as adolescent substance abuse (McGovern et al, 2018). The fact that addiction can impact relationships in such a negative way is disheartening, yet these changes are not always permanent. The concept of mending broken relationships is incredibly subjective and difficult to study, so it is hard to “prove” that they are mendable with scientific facts. Despite this, it does seem to be of common knowledge that relationships are capable of being recovered, no matter the cause of their brokenness. In general, the damage that addiction can cause to relationships is reversible, but not always easy.
Substance abuse disorder can have many social consequences as well. In this context, “social” indicates the relationship of the user with larger society, specifically in terms of occupation and social standing. Those struggling with addiction often have difficulty maintaining their careers and not letting their disorder interfere. In a 2018 study, dependence on alcohol was found to significantly increase one’s risk of unemployment. This relationship held true for marijuana dependence as well (Boden, Lee, Horwood, Grest & McLeod, 2017). In addition, a meta-analysis of the literature from 1990 to 2010 found clear evidence that substance abuse “increases the likelihood of unemployment and decreases the chance of finding and holding down a job” (Henkel, 2011). It is important to note that this relationship is two-sided. While substance abuse can often lead to unemployment, unemployment can drive individuals to abuse substances as well (Compton, Gfroerer, Conway & Finger, 2014). This trap of addiction can be detrimental, as users often need money to get back on their feet yet they struggle to maintain any job they are offered. Without a sustainable income, obtaining drugs of abuse can also be very difficult for users. Securing money for these drugs can lead to theft and even violence, hurting not just the user but those around them (Stevens, Trace & Bewley-Taylor, 2005). These actions lower the social standing of the user and hurt their chance of maintaining a healthy life, yet it is not impossible to recover what has been lost. There are many programs that help those recovering from substance abuse reintegrate into society. The process is difficult but not impossible. For example, many successfully transition back into society through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program. Through a mentoring approach, Alcoholics Anonymous has been found to be a relatively effective in transitioning users back into a sober lifestyle (Moos & Moos, 2006). The literature indicates that a healthy transition is possible, but the process can be undermined if the drug is still being abused (Ginexi, Fox & Scott, 2014). The social consequences of substance abuse are indisputable but can be reversed with the right treatment.
While there are many side effects of addiction that can be reversed, the physical consequences of drugs on the body are often permanent. The negative impact of drugs on the body can vary from initial nausea or dizziness, to long-term alterations in functioning. The short-term consequences would not be deemed irreversible, however many of the late-onset side effects are. For example, those who abuse cigarettes often do not realize the impact of the chemicals on their body until they receive a lung cancer diagnosis decades after they achieved sobriety. According to the Center for Disease Control, around 80% of lung cancer deaths are associated with cigarette smoking. They also stated that there is still an increased for those who had quit smoking compared to those who had never started, indicating that there are some biological consequences of cigarette use that users cannot change (“What are the…,” 2019). Another interesting example is that of chronic cocaine use on the heart. Cocaine is a stimulant that can be toxic to heart tissues through various processes. As a result, cocaine users have an increased risk for cardiovascular diseases and myocardial infarctions. These effects are due to the chronic cocaine use but that does not necessarily indicate the individual is using at the moment of their cardiac episode (Stankowski, Kloner, & Rezkalla, 2015). While these are only two examples, many drugs have the potential of creating irreversible damage on the body.
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To summarize, the consequences of substance abuse are severe but they do not always last. The emotional, interpersonal and social changes that occur due to addiction can alter all facets of the user’s life, including their marriages, careers and families. Amidst all this darkness, there is the incredible reality that recovery is possible with the right treatment. On the other hand, the physical consequences of drug abuse are not so easily fixed. These side effects, reversible or irreversible, are important to understand for the sake of users and practitioners alike. As scientific research continues, greater treatments will be developed to reverse these negative consequences. There is hope for those grappling with addiction; may research advance to give user’s the tools to rebuild their lives.
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- Amato, P. R., & Previti, D. (2003). People's reasons for divorcing: Gender, social class, the life course, and adjustment. Journal of family issues, 24(5), 602-626.
- Boden, J. M., Lee, J. O., Horwood, L. J., Grest, C. V., & McLeod, G. F. (2017). Modelling possible causality in the associations between unemployment, cannabis use, and alcohol misuse. Social science & medicine, 175, 127-134
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- Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006). Participation in treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: A 16‐year follow‐up of initially untreated individuals. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(6), 735-750.
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- Stevens, A., Trace, M., & Bewley-Taylor, D. (2005). Reducing drug-related crime: an overview of the global evidence. The Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme. Retrieved March, 10, 2008.
- What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer? (2019, September 18). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/risk_factors.htm.
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