Doctors have identified several risk factors that could increase a person’s risk for addiction, including mental health disorders and a history of childhood trauma.
While risk factors can increase the chances of addiction, it’s important to remember that a risk factor for addiction doesn’t mean that a person will become addicted. This article will discuss the individual risk factors that have been identified and what research has to say about them.
An estimated 264 million people ages 15 to 64 admit to having used illegal drugs in the United States in 2013, according to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.1 The journal also reports that more people experience addictions to substances such as tobacco and alcohol than those who have the medical conditions of cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
The number of people suffering from addiction to substances is higher than the number of people suffering from cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
Researchers have identified several times of great change in a young person’s life that can make them more likely to use drugs or become addicted to drugs later in life. These childhood experiences can start at a very early age and may shape the way a person feels about drug use later in life.
Examples of these experiences include:2
The transition from home to school: Leaving the comfort of their home and attending school regularly can be a time of insecurity and fear that can shape a young person’s school performance later.
The transition from elementary to middle school: A young person starts to expand their peer group at this time. They may make friends that can positively shape their life, or they could make friends that have a negative influence on them later in life. Young people often first encounter drugs at this stage in their lives.
The transition to high school: When a young person goes to high school, they are exposed more often to drugs, young people their age who use drugs, and social situations where drugs are present.
A lack of parental supervision can increase the risk that a young person will develop a substance abuse disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2
On the other hand, children who were monitored very closely by their parents are less likely to experience drug addiction and abuse.
Unfortunately, some people experience childhood trauma as much as they experience adolescent drug abuse. Sometimes, these two occur together. For example, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that in young people who were receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% reported having a history of exposure to trauma.3
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the mental health diagnoses that doctors think has the most significant link with substance abuse. Also known as PTSD, this is when a person goes through a traumatic experience (such as sexual or physical abuse, or being involved in a military battle or tragic event) and experiences feelings of depression, anxiety, and even flashbacks to the event. An estimated 59% of young people who have PTSD develop some type of substance abuse problem. 3
While doctors don’t know precisely why people who have been through abuse or trauma experience substance abuse at higher rates, they do have some ideas, doctors suspect that some people turn to substance abuse as a means to self-medicate their feelings and concerns.
However, doctors have also found that substance abuse can put a person at higher risk for emotional and physical trauma. It can be challenging to know if one condition caused the other or vice-versa. 3
Doctors have linked biological factors, such as genetic history and age, with some increased risks for substance abuse.
Doctors have identified 400 gene locations and variations on these gene locations that those who abuse alcohol and smoke have in common. 4 This and other research suggests the genuine possibility that there are genes that can influence a person’s potential to struggle with addiction.
Sometimes, substance abuse seems to run in families. People whose parents have struggled with addiction are more likely to develop a substance use disorder as well. 1 This could be in part due to environmental factors, such as the influence of easy access and seeing parents use drugs and alcohol.
Doctors haven’t found genes that guarantee a person will or will not become addicted to drugs, but they do know that genes could play a role. Genes could potentially make a person more vulnerable to the addictive effects of drug abuse, but their genetic makeup is no guarantee that they will struggle with substance abuse. The same is true for having other risk factors associated with addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Use, abusing drugs in a person’s late childhood or early adolescence – usually between ages 12 and 13 – increases a person’s risk for drug involvement later in life. 1 It’s important to note that not all young people who use drugs will develop a dependence to them.
Young people are one of the most vulnerable age groups of people to drug use and substance abuse, according to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.1
Doctors call having a mental health disorder and a substance abuse disorder a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. An estimated 60% of adolescents in substance abuse treatment programs also have a mental illness.5
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder that affects between 1.6% to 5.9% of the United States population.6 Those with this condition have behavior patterns that are very resistant to change and cause a person to have difficulty recognizing the thoughts and feelings of others. They often display turbulent, erratic behavior, suicidal thoughts, and may have intense episodes of anger or fear.6 They often engage in self-harming behaviors, including cutting, burning, or other forms of self-mutilation.
Many people who have this condition suffered from childhood trauma and are more likely to experience higher rates of substance abuse than the general population.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 50% of people with borderline personality disorder have a history of abusing prescription medications.6
Having a personality disorder can sometimes make a substance use disorder harder to treat. Those with personality disorders don’t always follow treatment plans easily and may be at risk for dropping out of treatment.
Anxiety disorders include conditions such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.5 An estimated 43% of people who are in treatment for a substance use disorder for abuse of prescription painkillers have a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.5
As a general rule, the more serious a person’s mental health disorder is, the more likely they are to have a substance abuse disorder. For example, people who have schizophrenia (a disorder where a person may see or hear things that aren’t there) have higher rates of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use than when compared to the general population.5
Many factors can contribute to drug use. This includes environmental factors, such as where a person grew up, whom they grew up around, and their overall socioeconomic status.
When a child grows up seeing a caregiver who abuses drugs, it increases their risk for substance abuse later in life, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.2 When a young person sees a role model or person in authority in their life abusing drugs, their concept of right and wrong when it comes to drug use may start to change. A young person may not view drug use as being a problem, or they may not believe it to be unlawful.
Seeing a person’s peers misuse drugs is another risk factor for adolescents and drug abuse.2 A young person’s peer group is critical to their health and well-being. Seeing their peers use drugs and also potentially engage in other unlawful behaviors may increase the likelihood that they will use drugs as well.2
Some of the barriers to substance abuse include acquiring illegal drugs to use them.1 If a person doesn’t have these barriers, they’re more likely to struggle with substance abuse.1 According to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the following are true:
The closer a person lives to bars, liquor stores, and stores selling alcohol, the more likely a person is to struggle with alcohol abuse and death from alcohol.
The closer a person lives to places where tobacco is sold, such as convenience stores, gas stations, and pharmacies, the more likely they are to smoke.
Each of these facts adds to the idea that the easier it is to access drugs and alcohol to use illegally, the more likely it is that a person will become dependent on drugs and alcohol.1
Some medical and behavioral health experts will discuss potential “addictive” personality traits. These are personality traits that may increase the risk that a person will become dependent on drugs or alcohol.
However, some controversy exists regarding whether or not personality is a risk factor for developing an addiction. This controversy is described in greater detail below.
Some researchers suggest the following personality traits may affect addiction. These traits include:1
Chronic dishonesty or history of manipulating others
A study published in the journal Addictive Behavior examined the personality profiles of more than 200 people who were addicted to different substances and compared these profiles to 78 control group members who were not addicted to drugs or alcohol. 7 At the study’s conclusion, the researchers found that people with personality traits like impulsivity and neuroticism were more likely to struggle with substance abuse.
The study’s authors also found that personality traits like agreeableness, being an extrovert, and being open to new experiences made a person less likely to struggle with substance abuse.
Not all experts agree that the concept of an “addictive personality” is really an issue. According to Healthline, many addiction experts view substance abuse as a brain disorder where substances cause changes in the brain that cause a person to develop intense cravings for a particular substance, therefore making the person dependent on the substance. These experts think this is not due to an “addictive personality,” but is instead due to other factors like the ones discussed above.
Healthline discussed a research study published in the journal Political Science that resulted in the researchers being unable to conclude if a person developed “addictive”-type personality traits before or after they started using drugs.8
Some experts are concerned with the concept that people believe in an addictive personality.8 They’re worried that some people may not think they’re at risk for addiction because they don’t have some of the personality traits doctors have connected with having an “addictive” personality.
The reverse is also true. Believing that personality has some effect on addiction may make those who struggle with substance abuse disorders think they can’t overcome the habit because of their personality.
The goal isn’t to make people feel worse about personality traits that they can’t change. Instead, many medical experts recommend looking to other risk factors that researchers have more conclusively agreed can increase the risks for addiction, such as trauma and environmental factors.9
Even if a person has a risk factor for drug use, this doesn’t mean they’ll develop an addiction to drugs. The opposite is also true: People who don’t have risk factors for drug abuse can still become addicted. It’s essential to address potential risk factors and negative behaviors as quickly as possible. This will help reduce a young person’s risk for substance abuse.