It is alarming to not the rate of increasing prevalence of drug abuse today, which is not restricted to any particular age group, gender, or any other demographic division or strata of the society. And it is saddening to observe such an increase and attraction towards tobacco use, despite its well-known hazards. On the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, let’s work towards creating an awareness about this vice, thereby busting widely believed myths and promoting healthier habits.

Warning Signs

The line between casual use and drug abuse is thin and dangerous, and more often than not, addiction sneaks up on the adolescent with a gradual increase in use as it begins to fulfill a valuable need in the eyes of the user – this need could be anything from mood elevation to pain relief. Some teenagers may turn to substances simply out of curiosity or even as a faulty coping mechanism to deal with their feelings of loneliness, depression, stress or anxiety, or to cope with family related problems and stressors. However, we as responsible adults need to be aware of the signs and symptoms to identify an individual who might be dependent on drugs.

1. Physical signs

  • Fatigue
  • Repeated health complaints
  • Red glazed eyes
  • Lasting cough

2. Emotional changes

  • Personality change
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Irresponsible behaviour
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor judgment
  • Depression
  • General lack of interest

3. Social changes

  • Sudden jitteriness or nervousness
  • Increased secretiveness
  • Continual wearing of long sleeved clothes and sunglasses to hide the tell-tale signs of injection marks or redness of eyes
  • Withdrawal and social isolation
  • Deterioration in physical appearance and grooming
  • Association with known substance abusers
  • Unusual borrowing of money

4. Changes in relation to family

  • Violation of rules
  • Frequent arguments
  • Withdrawing from family
  • Unusual borrowing of money
  • Stealing small items
  • Secretive behaviour
  • Escaping from responsibilities

5. Changes at school/work

  • Loss of interest
  • Negative attitude
  • Deterioration in performance
  • Absenteeism
  • Discipline problems
  • Frequent trips to the restroom

Consequences of Drug Abuse

Addiction can be understood as the continued use of mood-altering substances despite detrimental effects on the body, mind and the immediate surroundings of the individual. The consumption of substances like alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or other drugs are known to be associated with high levels of risks for not just the consumers, but for those around them as well. While we tend to generalize such habits synonymously with risk-taking behaviour, often it becomes necessary to be aware of the specific consequences that these substances can have on our physical health, psychological well-being as well as long-term influences on our personal, social as well as occupational functioning. Further, these adverse effects are not restricted to the consumers, but also tend to spill over to their family members, and even those in physical proximity with them.

1. Physical health. The consumption of drugs leads to clearly evident physical changes, influencing the person’s vital regulatory processes including sleeping and eating patterns. Some of the immediately visible overt effects of substances, depending on the nature of the drug, could include insomnia or hypersomnia, difficulty in motor coordination, lethargy, unsteady gait, stupor, delirium or even lack of consciousness. Furthermore, such effects are not necessarily immediate but can also linger long-term, including risks to the kidneys, liver, heart as well as lungs. The human kidney can be damaged by habitual drug use over a period of many years. The most common conditions among drug addicts are heart disease and heart failure. Opiates affect the nerve cells that operate the spinal cord, limbic system and brain stem. Any individual who smokes the drug to which they are addicted is putting their lungs in jeopardy. Prolonged use of certain drugs can cause sleeping disorders, respiratory problems, pulmonary problems, menstrual irregularities, and a lack of sex drive. Further, the mode of transmission of the drugs, whether injectable, inhaled, or oral, could also be associated with various detrimental effects including risk of infectious diseases, damage to the lungs, tongue, mouth, skin, etc.

2. Emotional health. Drugs can contribute towards mood instability, apathy and feelings of indifference, psychosis, extreme emotional experiences including either a dissociation from the real world around the person, or an enhanced experience of emotionality and stimulation from the environment. Furthermore, a prolonged use of substances increases vulnerability to feelings of anxiety, panic or insecurity, irritability and anger or aggressive outbursts, especially when the substance is unavailable.

3. Socialisation. Excessive consumption, abuse or dependence of substances could lead to social withdrawal, and lack of responsiveness. A common tendency for such addicts is to seek friends and peers solely with the purpose of consuming the substance, and lack of other commonly shared interests. Furthermore, such individuals often continue to use substance despite interpersonal problems stemming from the effects of the substance.

4. Psychological well-being. Features of depression, paranoia, and anxiety are common psychological effects of substance use. As an individual develops a tolerance to drugs, it will take ever-increasing amounts of the substance to get high. Such feelings of high makes the person feel low in the absence of the substance. Further, feelings of guilt associated with the indulgence in substances could also lead to vulnerability to depression.

5. Cognitive abilities. Substances lead to not just some immediate side effects, but also cause long lasting changes in the neural pathways of the brain as well. Poor decision making abilities is common in people consuming substances frequently. When experiencing craving, the person cannot think of anything but the substance. In addition, an impaired sense of judgement, disturbances in perception, attention, thinking, concentration, memory, increased suggestibility, and distortion of time and space are other common effects associated with the use of substances. Finally, most drugs alter a person’s thinking and judgment, which can increase the risk of injury or death.

6. Functioning. Besides drastic changes in eating and sleeping habits, substances can have an overall influence on the individual’s personal, social as well as occupational functioning. Such people tend to give up all other forms of recreation or occupation, craving both biological as well as psychological, their life being solely driven and revolving around the substances. They might fail to fulfil major role obligations, and feel a lack of motivation to do anything else. Further, substances reduce the person’s threshold for impulse control, and thereby increase the individual’s vulnerability to physically hazardous situation due to a combination of the above mentioned effects, with the risk of often irreversible actions, while the person is intoxicated or under the influence of the substance.

In addition, substance use could also lead to adverse effects besides the individual consuming it, as the behavioural patterns of the family members who have been significantly affected by another family member’s substance use or addiction. As often the individual is unwilling to accept addiction as a disease, the substance use is a voluntary behaviour and the responsibility is then shifted onto the family members, who need to deal with the person’s denial, as well as struggle to cope with the adverse effects of living with the person under the influence of the substance.

Role of parents and family members

It is essential firstly for parents and family members to be educated with adequate and complete information regarding the nature of substance use. Many people may blame the individual for falling prey to such a habit, considering drug addiction to be a voluntary behavior or a character flaw. It is necessary to be able to bust such myths and to ensure that drug addiction be understood as a disease, which can be treated.

In their efforts to help the individual overcome such addictions, the parent or the family member must ensure that they develop a trusting rapport, especially with adolescents. The family members must not be patronizing towards them, instead being supportive and engage with them, at the same time encouraging them to seek professional help. Moreover, it is vital that the parents or family members do not assume a penalizing role, instead involving the individual in the decision making process, providing a support system, and simultaneously making them take on the responsibility and commitment towards seeking help.