Substance abuse disorder is a diagnosable medical condition and a mental health disorder. When substance abuse occurs, it alters relationships, impacts health and can create life-threatening outcomes. When a person’s use of drugs or alcohol interferes with day-to-day life, school, work or relationships, it’s become more than just casual use. This is when treatment is necessary.

How Common Is Substance Abuse Disorder?

Substance use disorder, or SUD, occurs when a person is dependent on a substance for a period of time. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that 21.5 million people over the age of 12 had a SUD in 2014. Of this, 94.2 percent were people over the age of 18. Only a fraction of these people get treatment. In many communities, these disorders are a leading cause of overdoses.

What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

A SUD can refer to a variety of instances in which a person becomes dependent on an illegal or legal substance in such a way as they feel they need to use it. The term substance abuse may describe a variety of changes including behavioral, physical and social.

To diagnose SUD, doctors must understand the changes in patients’ personalities and behaviors. Here are some examples of behavioral changes that may indicate a SUD is occurring:

  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Using substances while driving a vehicle
  • Mood swings, outbursts, aggression or irritability
  • Periods of hyperactivity or agitation
  • Poor motivation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep

SUD can also cause physical changes. These include:

  • Unexpected weight loss or gain
  • Tremors
  • Slurred speech
  • Deterioration of physical appearance
  • Bloodshot eyes

Additionally, a person may show changes socially, such as:

  • Changes in relationships, such as new friends
  • No longer engaging in social activities
  • Financial problems or need for money
  • Legal problems

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, about 25 percent of people with a serious mental health disorder are likely to also have a substance abuse disorder. Most commonly, these mental health issues include depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders and anxiety disorders.

It’s a Mental Health Disorder

SUDs are a type of mental health disorder. That is, they occur as a result of changes and dependency in the physical body and the brain. Understanding that it’s a mental health disorder makes it possible to treat the underlying cause of the addiction.

It’s Not a Behavioral or Process Addiction

It’s important not to confuse a SUD with a behavioral or process addiction. In these instances, a person is engaging in some type of behavior that is creating a need to repeat that behavior. With a process or behavioral addiction, you may feel a high related to the activity, but later feel guilty. Examples include:

These are important addictions to treat as well, but they are significantly different than what happens to a person with a SUD.

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Though many people refer to a SUD as the use of an illicit substance or the illegal use of a legal substance, it can also relate to alcohol abuse. Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, occurs when a person is unable to control their drinking due to emotional and physical dependency.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports about 16 million people in the United States have AUD. Those who compulsively use alcohol often have a loss of control over their intake. They also demonstrate aggression or a negative emotional state when they do not have alcohol.

What Causes Substance Use Disorder?

It’s not known why some people develop SUD and others do not. However, factors such as a person’s genetic makeup and mental health are key. It can be brought on by peer pressure, emotional distress from a tragic event, the result of anxiety or as a way to manage depression.

In others, mental health disorders such as attention deficit disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can trigger the use of alcohol or drugs. This can progress into a SUD or AUD.

In still other situations, SUDs are brought on by prescription-strength medication dependency, such as taking pain medications for treatment after an injury. They can also occur in those who live stressful lives over a long period of time.

Are You Predisposed to a SUD?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, adults are more likely to develop SUD or AUD if they grow up in a home where drug use is present. This may be the result of a genetic predisposition or environmental factors.

What Qualifies as a Substance Use Disorder?

Any instance in which a person has a mental or physical addiction to a substance may qualify as a SUD. This includes any of these commonly used substances.

Opiates and Narcotics

The use of painkillers beyond what a doctor prescribes can be a SUD. Common opiates include heroin, codeine, hydrocodone, fentanyl and opium. These drugs reduce pain, ease emotions and help you relax.


Depressants work to reduce anxiety and calm the mind. Addiction can occur in those who use them over a long period of time. Common depressants include alcohol, Valium, Xanax and benzodiazepines.


These drugs work to create energy by stimulating the brain and nervous system’s actions. Stimulants can give you a high, but they also aid in improving focus and energy. These drugs commonly include cocaine and amphetamines, with Ritalin being a common prescription stimulant.


The use of other drugs also qualifies as a SUD. This includes the use and overuse of LSD, marijuana, mescaline, PCP and psilocybin (mushrooms).

How Substance Use Disorder Compares to Other Diagnoses

With SUDs, it is critical that your doctor understand your physical dependency on the drug or alcohol. The doctor must also take into consideration co-occurring mental health disorders.

Substance use disorder can occur before mental health disorders or after. In all situations, it’s not possible to recover if you don’t treat both aspects of this condition. That’s something we can help you with at FHE Health.

When Does Someone Benefit From Substance Abuse Treatment?

If you are facing a SUD, it’s important to seek help immediately to avoid complications such as an overdose. Signs that you may need treatment include:

  • Difficulty sleeping or performing daily tasks
  • The need to use drugs or alcohol so much so that it dominates your day
  • The desire to stop is present, but you simply cannot do it
  • You’re neglecting your health, hygiene, family or quality of life
  • Depression or anxiety are common

What Is the Treatment for Substance Use Disorders?

Treatment for SUD starts with a full diagnosis and exam. At FHE Health, you may benefit from detox if you are chemically dependent on the substance, meaning you experience withdrawal symptoms when you do not use it.

Treatment for SUD depends on your underlying health complications along with any co-occurring mental health disorders. Treatment at our location may include:

The right type of treatment for your SUD depends on the underlying causes. In all cases, we provide an individualized treatment plan.

Seeking Treatment for Substance Use Disorders from FHE Health

Many people suffer from SUD and can receive comprehensive help at FHE Health. If you have this condition or you believe your loved one does, seek immediate care from our team.

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