Myths about substance misuse 

Substance abuse is a complex issue, and as a result there are many myths surrounding it. Here’s the full story behind some common myths.

There are a lot of myths about substance abuse, and the prevalence of these myths doesn’t make it easy for people to seek help for their problems. Many myths oversimplify the issues substance abuse can cause, so let’s sort fact from fiction. 

Myth 1: Addiction is a choice 

Addiction is not a conscious decision. Repeated use creates powerful changes in the brain that lessen the ability for self-control.  

To add to this, there are many things that can make someone more susceptible to addiction, like mental health problems, trauma, socioeconomic status, genetics. It’s a complex problem that is difficult to solve and is about so much more than simply ‘choosing’ substance use. 

Myth 2: You can only get addicted to illegal drugs 

Addiction to illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin is probably what we hear about most often in the media, so it’s understandable that you might think illegal drugs are the only problem when it comes to addiction.  

In reality, there are many legal substances that pose a problem for addiction. Some common substances include prescription drugs like painkillers, sleeping pills, stimulants (e.g. Adderall or Ritalin, commonly used for treatment of ADHD) and so-called ‘legal highs’ like spice or Benzo Fury.  

Myth 3: Only certain people get addicted 

Addiction can affect anyone, no matter their age, gender, or circumstances, and believing that only a certain type of person suffers from addiction oversimplifies the complex nature of addiction.  

Some people do take drugs recreationally and don’t seem to suffer the effects of addiction, but just because they seem to be functioning normally doesn’t mean that their substance abuse isn’t negatively affecting their life and health. 

Myth 4: Mental health and addiction are unrelated 

Mental health and addiction often go hand in hand. Mental health challenges, like feeling anxious or depressed, make it more likely someone will turn to substances to try and deal with what they’re feeling. Drugs can provide a temporary escape from overwhelming feelings, but it’s not a helpful coping mechanism.  

Myth 5: Quitting is just a question of willpower 

As we mentioned before, repeated use of drugs leads to big changes in the brain. Substance use affects the reward centre of the brain, triggering a rush of dopamine (aka the ‘happy’ hormone) that the brain is hardwired to want more of.  

Our brains naturally release dopamine as a ‘reward’ during exercise, social interactions or things we find pleasurable, like playing with a pet or engaging in a hobby. The feeling of reward felt from drugs is much stronger and quicker, but the brain gets overstimulated and less sensitive as a result, meaning you need more of the drug to feel the same dopamine rush. This drop in sensitivity also means nothing quite compares to the feeling the substance gives, so ‘natural’ ways of releasing dopamine don’t come close.  

That’s a lot to contend with and it’s unlikely willpower alone will work to break the cycle of addiction. Common treatment options for substance abuse addictions include talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), medication, a closely monitored detox, self-help groups, or a combination of things.