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Substance Abuse: Warning Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Substance abuse is different from addiction, and in some cases, can be addressed through counseling before it progresses to addiction. Substance abuse is when a person drinks heavily, misuses prescription medications, or uses illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, or crystal meth. People may struggle with substance abuse for many reasons, and if they recognize the problem early enough, they can seek therapy to address the issue before it gets worse. It is also possible to treat substance abuse in the comfort of ones own home through online treatment as well.

Signs Of Substance Abuse

Unfortunately, many social activities include the consumption of alcohol and/or drugs, particularly at parties, nightclubs, music festivals, and even during more casual events like happy hour after work. It can be easy to build a tolerance to substances and begin to consume more to feel the same effect, which leads substance abuse.

Home Life

Difficulties keeping up with responsibilities at home, school, or work because of substance use


Physical issues (injuries, disease, digestive issues, etc) caused by substance use


Hurting or harming yourself or others because of substance use

Legal Problems

Facing legal problems because of substance use

Continuous Use

Continuing to use substances despite negative effects on relationships, performance at work or school, and emotional, mental, and physical health

How is Substance Use Disorder Diagnosed?

Substance use disorder is diagnosed by utilizing the 11 criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The number of criteria that an individual exhibits will help to determine the severity of the substance use disorder in the following ways:

  • 2-3 criteria: mild substance use disorder
  • 4-5 criteria: moderate substance use disorder
  • 6+ criteria: severe substance use disorder

This criteria is as follows:

  • Taking a substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended
  • Wanting to stop using but being unable to do so
  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
  • Cravings and urges to use
  • Not engaging in expected responsibilities at home as a result of use
  • Continuing to use despite consequences of doing so
  • Giving up important activities because of use
  • Using substances over and over, even when it puts you in danger
  • Continuing to use despite having a mental or physical health problem that is made worse by use
  • Needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effects
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms when unable to use

A doctor or mental health professional can officially diagnose a substance use disorder in their patient but conducting a psychological analysis. Part of this analysis is gathering information to help compare to the criteria for a substance use disorder in an effort to determine the severity of one’s condition. 

How is Substance Use Disorder Treated?

Substance use disorders are treatable conditions. When left untreated, this disease can prove to be fatal. That is why obtaining treatment is absolutely vital for survival. 

There are many different approaches to treating a substance use disorder. The severity of one’s substance use disorder is what determines the kind of treatment plan they will need to get sober and stay in recovery. For many, the first step in substance use disorder treatment is detox, which can be followed by therapy and aftercare.

Substance Abuse Detox

A substance abuse disorders detox is the substance abuse treatment process of clearing the body of all addictive substances. Individuals with substance use disorder can detox at a treatment facility. While in the care of professionals, these individuals can receive care to help minimize their withdrawal symptoms, manage their cravings, and handle any health problems that develop. When detox is completed, individuals can decide if they will continue their care with further therapy.

Substance Abuse Therapy

Rather than seeing a therapist on a weekly basis, those with substance use disorder tend to require more of a hands-on approach than those with other mental health conditions. Therefore, individuals can participate in inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient programming, or partial hospitalization programming based on their needs. Within those programs, they are likely to engage in the following methods of addiction psychiatry proven to help treat substance use disorders:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Individual therapy
  • Group counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Contingency management
  • Experiential therapy
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

These and other therapies are often combined into one complete treatment plan, allowing individuals to obtain the most benefit from their care as possible. 

Substance Abuse Aftercare 

Prior to leaving a treatment facility or program, individuals often receive an aftercare plan set forth by their treatment team. This plan may include a number of things, including a daily schedule and weekly therapy sessions. The goal of the aftercare plan is to provide individuals with a sense of structure as they make their way out on their own for the first time while sober. A major part of aftercare for those in recovery is participating in 12-Step meetings or support groups within their community.

Living and Coping With Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder never goes away. If you are someone with a substance use disorder, you can obtain treatment for it to help minimize your symptoms and keep you sober. But, that does not mean that you are cured. It is imperative to continue to focus on prioritizing your recovery after treatment so that you can effectively live and cope with it in ways that allow for your peace and happiness. My Psychiatrist can assist you in enhancing motivation for change with substance abuse treatment.

One of the best ways to do this is to stay connected to others in recovery. This is most commonly done by going to regular 12-Step meetings or support groups where others are going through similar life experiences. There, you can keep your recovery at the forefront of your mind, continue sharpening your coping skills, and benefiting from the support you receive from others. You can also continue on with outpatient therapy sessions with a substance use disorder psychiatrist. Substance use disorder is a condition that requires constant tending to, which is why doing these things and more is important to live with and cope with this disorder effectively.

How to Know When to See a Psychiatrist for Substance Use Disorder

You should consider seeing a substance use disorder psychiatrist if you are experiencing any or all of the diagnostic criteria listed above for any drug abuse problems. Using any mind-altering substance outside of its intended purpose is substance abuse, which can lead to substance use disorder. The sooner that you obtain treatment, the better your odds of recovery are. 

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