Why Do People Do Drugs?

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Last Edited: September 12, 2020

Patricia Howard, LMFT, CADC

Clinically Reviewed
Jim Brown, CDCA

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

Understanding the reason Why Do People Do Drugs can help lead us to recovery.

People end up in a cycle of drug use for a wide variety of reasons. Some people are prescribed drugs to manage pain and then find themselves addicted to prescription drugs when their illness or injury has subsided. Others find themselves facing depression or stress and begin to take drugs to cope. Some people end up as drug users out of peer pressure; perhaps they started to take drugs because they thought it was fun, and then found themselves hooked.

But Why Do People Do Drugs?

Co-occurring Disorders: When Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disorders Meet

Substance abuse is more likely to be experienced by people who have mental health disorders. When substance abuse and mental disorders co-occur, diagnosing the different issues can be extremely difficult, as symptoms tend to intertwine in a complex manner. Mental health symptoms can be misdiagnosed as symptoms of substance abuse, and substance abuse can make it difficult to see mental health symptoms for what they are.

Often, people with mental health disorders abuse drugs in an effort to treat the symptoms of anxiety, depression, social anxiety, and phobias, as well as psychological pain. This sort of self-medication can deepen their addictions without doing anything positive to treat the underlying mental health disorders.

In addition, when people with mental health disorders try to stop using drugs, they often find the process exceptionally difficult, since the substance abuse and mental health disorders typically exacerbate each other. Trying to treat one without acknowledging the other can result in increased cravings and tolerance for their chosen drugs as well as increased and more intense episodes of mental health symptoms.

Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders

In the past, substance abuse and mental health disorders were treated as separate issues. Today, however, medical practitioners are aware that integrated treatment, in which mental disorders and substance abuse are treated simultaneously, is far more successful in terms of treatment outcomes and quality of life.

Integrated treatment programs involve a combination of intensive medical care and therapeutic psychological intervention at the same time. Coordinating treatment this way makes it possible to manage one set of symptoms without making the others worse. Integrated treatment typically begins at the detox stage and continues on into recovery.

Through integrated treatment, patients are better able to confront the role drugs play in their lives and to learn more about their own addictions. Patients are also more likely to receive the support they need for recovery and to develop recovery goals. Private, group or family counseling for those with co-occurring disorders is often a key element of successful recovery.

The Cycle of Addiction: Was There Addiction in Your Family?

Genetics and Environment

Studies show that about 80 million Americans come from a family or married into a family struggling with drug or Alcohol addictions. More than 8.3 million children are growing up in an addiction-plagued family right now. Research indicates that those children are four times more likely to end up with substance abuse problems themselves as adults.

So how much of the tendency to become a drug abuser if your family is one of abuse can be attributed to genetics, and how much is due to the environment the child grows up in? There may actually be a fairly even split between these factors. Researchers believe your genetic background may account for 40 to 60 percent of the tendency to be vulnerable to addiction.

Environment also plays a key part. When children grow up in an unstable environment where drug or Alcohol use is rampant, they are at much higher risk of doing drugs in their own lives.

The Results of Growing Up with Addiction

People who grow up in a home filled with addiction feel the effects of that addiction in many ways. All too often, addiction takes over the brain of the addicted parent so that he or she is unable to convey love to the children in the family. As a result, the children’s social and emotional development is often stunted. Because their parents are always in the midst of violent emotional fluctuations, the children themselves are unable to maintain emotional stability, swinging back and forth between extreme emotionality and repression of emotional response.

Children whose parents use drugs are often neglected and may be sexually or physically abused. They often develop anxiety because they never know what to expect from their parents, and may even grow up with childhood-induced PTSD. Often, they have great difficulty to form trusting relationships outside their families since their parents haven’t proven themselves trustworthy. They are instilled with a life-long deep-seeded fear of never being loved.

In addition, children of addicted parents can grow up feeling helpless to change their own environment, so they find themselves unable to plan or take charge of events as adults. Many end up dealing with survivor’s guilt. It’s no wonder, with all these issues building up, that so many children of addicts become addicts themselves.

Which Prescription Drugs Are Abused the Most?

Prescription drugs do a lot of good when they are taken as prescribed for the conditions they’re prescribed for. Abuse of these drugs refers to nonmedical uses. A person who abuses prescription drugs either takes someone else’s prescription takes a drug in a dose or a way outside the confines of the prescription or takes it to get high.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are Opioids, stimulants, and depressants. Opioids, which are legitimately prescribed as painkillers, including popularly misused drugs such as Fentanyl, Hydrocodone (sold under the brand names Vicodin and Norco, among others), Methadone, and Oxycodone (sold under the brand names OxyContin and Percocet, among others).

Depressants are divided into tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics, and they’re used to treat sleep disorders and anxiety. This category of prescription drugs includes Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. Stimulants, which are typically part of the treatment for ADHD, include Ritalin, Adderall, and various amphetamines.

How Do Prescription Drug Users Become Addicted?

About 54 million people in the United States have taken prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons at least once, with more than 5,000 people doing so for the first time each day. Women and adolescents are most likely to misuse these medications. While most people do use prescription medicines properly, these numbers indicate that prescription drug misuse is a significant problem.

Some people become addicted to prescription painkillers, or stimulants because they continue taking medically prescribed drugs after they no longer need them. People are often attracted to these drugs out of a mistaken idea that, because they were approved by a doctor at some point, they’re safer than other illegal drugs. In addition, it’s often relatively easy to gain access to prescription drugs as compared to the complications of getting illegal drugs.

This ease of access contributes to the extreme growth of prescription medication abuse, particularly where Opioids are concerned, during the last two decades. Opioid addiction is also increasingly serving as a gateway drug that leads people to a Heroin addiction.

Personal Peer Pressure and Drug Use: What Drugs Are Your Friends Taking?

People take drugs for many reasons, but when you ask, “Why do teens take drugs?” peer pressure is at the top of the list as an answer. Studies show that teens are far more likely to take risks if they know their friends are watching, and that includes the risks associated with taking drugs.

Teens and adults both think about the risks and rewards of their actions, but teens are far more likely to ignore the risks and focus on the rewards. When their peers are abusing drugs, the rewards multiply. Now the teens can be cool by taking drugs, they can be accepted by their group, and they can get the emotional support they crave.

A peer group provides a valuable source of social support to a teen. A peer group helps a teen define his place in the world, and it provides resources on a physical and psychological basis as well. Peers also provide feedback that let a teen know if he’s living up to expectations. When his peers are doing drugs, that’s a powerful tug for a teen to join in. Research confirms that teens who do drugs as members of a group find it much tougher to quit their addictive behavior.

Digital Peer Pressure

But today’s teens — and adults, for that matter — have an added layer of peer pressure to deal with. Social media is filled with photos and videos of people partying, with plenty of candid shots and selfies depicting the use of drugs and Alcohol. Adding to the pressure is the fact that these shots are typically flooded with “Likes” and comments pointing out how much fun everyone is having.

Studies show that seeing these photos makes teens more curious to try drugs, which take on an air of glamour. In addition, drug use is often glamorized in the movies and in music videos, and many of the performers that teens look up to as role models boast about their drug use. It’s not surprising when teens, who are hard-wired to take risks and who are at a fragile stage of life, end up using drugs just to go along with the crowd.

The flip side of the peer pressure equation, however, is that peer pressure can also nudge teens toward positive behaviors. As teens go through detox and into recovery, they meet peers who are building a new life, and they may choose to emulate them. This points out how vital it is for anyone going through recovery to have a healthy and supportive network.

How to Help Drug Abusers Stop Using Drugs: What Not to Do.

Of course, you want to help your loved one who is doing drugs. But it’s all too easy to take steps that are intended to help, yet somehow push them further into their addiction. It’s important to act carefully when approaching a drug user whom you want to help. Here are a few of the things you can’t or shouldn’t do:

  • Force them to stop. Yes, you can hold an intervention. In some states, you can even force someone into treatment involuntarily. But that doesn’t mean any of your efforts will work. The drug user must make the inner commitment to change.
  • Do the hard work for them. Only the drug user can undergo detox, only the user can take on the hard work of recovery, and only the drug user can avoid relapse. It can be agonizing to see a loved one spiraling downward into addiction, but hovering over them isn’t going to break their habit.
  • Violate your own boundaries. It’s very easy to end up enabling a drug user to continue their habit, even when you disapprove. Setting very clear boundaries that you will not cross (or allow the user to cross) is crucial. Any time you allow those boundaries to be violated, you add to their problem.

How You Can Help

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help a loved one break an addiction. The following are effective:

  • See things through their eyes. Understand that a drug user isn’t experiencing the same reality that you are. You can see the health problems they’re having, the way they’ve torpedoed their career, the money issues… but they can’t. Try to find a place of common ground.
  • Learn about addiction. The more you understand about the causes of addiction and the triggers that bring about relapses, the better you’re able to communicate with your loved one and to support them.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. Dealing with an addict in your life is very stressful, and you could easily harm your own health, career, or income in trying to help your loved one. Make sure you take care of yourself and seek out the support you need.
  • Talk openly with them. If your loved one is willing to talk about the problem, have as open a dialogue as possible. Expect plenty of lies and manipulation along the way, but stay resolute in your willingness to help when they need you.
  • Find appropriate help. Your loved one is in no position to seek out medical help to deal with their addiction. Do the research for them, and provide them with the information they need. And then keep providing it until they’re ready to take that step.
  • Encourage them. It takes real courage to admit that you need help with drug addiction, and it takes even more courage to go through the difficult work involved with detox and recovery. Remind your loved one that treatment does work and that people do recover.

By understanding why people do drugs, you’re taking the first steps toward helping those you care about move toward seeking help.


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  2. “Drug Facts, Did You Know?” Drugs and the Environment, October 2004
  3. Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Fact Sheet.
  4. AlcoholScreening.org
  5. Office of National Drug Control Policy
  6. “New Initiative Harnesses Power of Teens, Parents to Stop Teen Drug Use,” Media Campaign, News Room, 29 January 2004
  7. Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, 3 October 2004
  8. “Help for Parents: Is Your Child Using Drugs? How to Find Out,” Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 12 October 2004
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  10. UN Office of Drugs and Crime World Drug Report 2008
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  12. “Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) Highlights—2006”
  13. “CDC Survey: As Many Teens Smoke Marijuana as Cigarettes, Cigarette Use Dropping Faster,” 5 June 2008