Problematic drug use is a deeply complex issue, interwoven with trauma, chronic stress, mental health challenges, and the desire to cope with emotional pain. Viewing addiction as a moral failing or criminal behavior fails to address the root causes that drive people to problematic substance use. We need understanding, compassion and evidence-based policies that support prevention and recovery rather than stigmatize and penalize those struggling with addiction.
The Development of Problematic Drug Use
Substance use often begins as a coping mechanism, a way to deal with emotional distress, trauma, or chronic stress when other healthy options aren’t available and/or susceptibility is high due to parental modeling. Environmental factors also play a role — childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, or instability can make someone more vulnerable later on. Over time, chronic drug use leads to changes in brain circuitry that make discontinuing use possible but extremely difficult. This is the cycle many get trapped in, using initially to cope but eventually losing control as dependence takes hold and personal and community recovery capital is low.
The Impact of Stress and Stigma
The more adversity and trauma one faces, the higher the risk of developing and continuing problematic substance use. At the same time, the stigma around addiction often dissuades people from seeking help. The shame and isolation of addiction, driven by family, community and societal judgement, exacerbates psychological and physiological dependency. Compassion and non-judgement are crucial to encourage those struggling to get support.
Rethinking Drug Policy
Punishment and criminalization have not curbed addiction rates or overdose deaths. In fact, the opposite is true — fear of prosecution discourages treatment while driving risky behaviors like needle sharing. Other approaches like safe injection sites, decriminalization, regulation, and a public health focus have shown promise in reducing harm. Ending the failed “War on Drugs” and those who use them will save lives.
Changing Our Relationship to Drugs
Rather than simplistic “just say no” messages, we must acknowledge the emotional needs that problematic substance use aims to meet, even if destructively. Then we can identify healthier strategies — counseling, community, purpose, connection with others. Preventing addiction requires supporting mental health and providing stability, belonging and coping skills early on.
The Vital Role of Relationships
Gabor Maté notes, “the absence of supportive relationships…makes individuals more prone to addiction.” Human connection is profoundly protective, helping build resilience to life’s difficulties. Therefore, how we treat those struggling with addiction — and each other — has significant impact. Compassion and supportive relationships are crucial in recovery and prevention efforts.
Guidance for Families
For family members of someone experiencing addiction, non-judgment, patience and compassion are indispensable. Do not negatively enable behaviors, but strive to keep healthy communication open and encourage treatment. It is a devastating situation all around. Seek counseling, coaching and community support for yourself as well. Healing is a long journey requiring grit and self-care. There is hope.
Problematic substance use arises from trauma, chronic stress and emotional pain not moral weakness. We must meet this issue with nuanced understanding of root causes and human needs in order to curb addiction rates. From rethinking policy, to strengthening communities, to changing how we support those who struggle — a compassionate public health approach is imperative. Healing is possible when we approach this issue with empathy, patience and an aim to foster resilience, stability and connection in this society.
Timothy Harrington's purpose is to assist the family members of a loved one struggling with problematic drug use and/or behavioral health challenges in realizing their innate strength and purpose.
M-F: 7am - 9pm