What is substance abuse?

“In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem”(CAMH, n.d). Alcohol, cannabis, and drugs are used by some to socialize and have fun. However, when one starts to drink or use drugs to cope, for example with stress, anxiety, or for a boost then this creates a dependence on the substance. Gradually, the person is no longer in control and feels they need/crave alcohol/substance to be able to function. They are no longer themselves because of the level of risk they are willing to take to obtain it and this sometimes can be beyond our comprehension. This is one of the reasons why addiction is classified as a disease that impacts the brain instead of a personal failing that one is in control of. 

There are two types of addictions to note:

  • Chemical addiction – This refers to addiction that involves the use of substances such as alcohol, opioids, cannabis, etc. 
  • Behavioral addiction – This refers to addiction that involves compulsive behaviors. These are persistent, repeated behaviors that one carries out even if they don’t offer any real benefit.

Chemical addictions involve how the brain reacts to a certain chemical e.g the ones listed above. At the beginning, the chemical has a positive effect on the brain, for instance, an increased feeling of euphoria and a reduction in stress and/or anxiety experienced. But, the concern arises when the chemical “hijacks” the brain. The individual using the chemical begins to depend on it to feel confident or participate in social activities etc.

Behavioral addictions on the other hand impact one’s behavior and this can include engaging in mindless scrolling on social media, gambling, shopping, video games, surgical procedures, risky behaviors, etc. behavioral addictions tend to have similar impacts on the individual as they impact one’s social, psychological and financial well being. 

Language and stigma 

When you hear the word addiction, your first thought is probably of substance abuse. The image of a drunk person comes to mind. For example, Will Smith drinking carelessly in Hancock. It is important to differentiate between these 2 words, “addiction and substance abuse”. Addiction is chronic in nature and is incredibly difficult to control even when faced with negative consequences. Whereas substance abuse refers to using a substance in a way other than its intended purpose and the individual usually finds it relatively easy to stop using. Nonetheless, substance abuse can lead to addiction. For example, using prescription medications more often than it has been prescribed. 

Addiction is a complex disease and difficult topic to discuss, which is often stigmatized in our society. How we think, talk about and describe addictions affects how individuals with this disease view themselves and how others perceive them.  Words like “ junkies or drunkies” only further perpetuate the stigma and describe an extreme version of the conditions that are often reinforced in popular culture but are not representative of everyone’s experience.  It is important to note that no one individual experience of addiction is the same as we are complex human beings. 

The language we use to describe these experiences then becomes crucial as they are experienced on a spectrum instead of absolutes. It would be more useful to start by indicating that someone has a substance problem, or struggles with a substance dependency before we simply label it as abuse.  As this has an impact on their well-being on those that they care about. 

The article will be continued in part two- The effects of substance abuse on loved ones. 



To learn more about the varying levels of substance use, refer to





Written in collaboration with Rapid Health