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Addiction, or dependence on a particular substance or activity, is one of the most complex areas of mental health. Addiction can often be difficult to treat, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the causes of addiction and the best approaches to treatment. Individuals who find themselves experiencing an addiction to drugs or alcohol often find the services of a mental health professional to be helpful in overcoming the addiction.


Drug and alcohol abuse or misuse—excessive or inappropriate use of a substance—can be difficult to define, and people’s opinions, values, and beliefs vary significantly on the topic. For some, any use of an illegal drug or any use of alcohol with the primary purpose of intoxication constitutes abuse. For others, abuse is indicated by recurring, negative consequences, such as:

  • Failure to meet social, work, and academic obligations.

  • Physical injury or illness.

  • Alcohol- or drug-related legal problems, such as arrest for driving while intoxicated.

  • Relationship problems with intimate partners, friends, and family.

  • Impulsivity, such as spending money excessively.

  • Diminished interest in other activities.

  • Short-term memory loss or blackouts.


Substance abuse can lead to substance dependence or addiction when both the amount of substance used and the rate of use increase. People who experience drug or alcohol addiction feel unable to control the impulse to use, and they often experience withdrawal symptoms in the sudden absence of the substance. Alcoholism, for example, occurs when people become chemically dependent on alcohol, and those who are addicted may become ill if they suddenly stop drinking. People may also feel psychologically dependent on a substance and continue to use it, particularly under stressful circumstances or to alleviate other psychological problems. Some people deny or are unaware that they have a problem with addiction, and sometimes a person’s substance dependency and abuse remains hidden from loved ones.

Signs of chemical dependence include:

  • Increasing tolerance, or the need to consume more of the substance to reach the desired altered state.

  • Requiring the substance throughout the day.

  • Seeking the company of other users and cutting off social ties with non-users.

  • Dismissing or resenting expressions of concern from loved ones.

  • Avoiding other activities and failing to meet obligations.

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the substance.

  • Hiding use from family and friends.

  • Binging —using heavily—for many hours or several days.

  • Feeling unable to quit.

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