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Substance Abuse-Related Risk & Protective Factors

Risk factors of substance are the characteristics that are statistically more prevalent on individuals who develop alcohol and substance abuse problems. This could happen either as adolescents or as adults. It is important for a person to understand the difference between words substance abuse and drug addiction in order to be able to seek the right medical treatment.

Substance abuse can be situational, a negative behavior that an individual might knowingly adopt. Advances in medicine have established that addiction is a chronic brain disease, mainly characterized by a poor control system of dopamine in an individual’s brain. This results in the individual continually searching for something that gives him/ her a significant dopamine rush to give feelings of satisfaction that most people who have normal dopamine control achieve easily from their primal instincts, such as eating and drinking.,

With the brain being accustomed to the surge in dopamine levels achieved after drug consumption, it becomes more difficult for individuals to derive the same level of pleasure in their everyday life. This is why methamphetamines and cocaine have a particular potency in manipulating peoples’ brains into releasing dopamine in inordinate amounts, making them extremely sought after for people whose dopamine control is particular low. It is vital to note that drug addiction is not exclusively caused by poor neurological functions, and that there is also a high likelihood that many individuals with this predisposition will not fall into drug and alcohol abuse.

Genetic factors

Genetic factors are attached to an individual’s genes that are passed down from parents to offspring and which are partly shared by other family members. With human physiology being directly linked by genetic inheritance, scientists around the world have a growing consensus that some people have a predisposition to some forms of substance abuse, thus making it easier for them to become addicts.

An individual’s risk of alcoholism is higher if their sibling, parent or grandparent is an alcoholic. Studies have shown that identical twins are highly likely to both be alcoholics if one of them is an alcoholic, considering that they have the same genetic makeup. This is relative to fraternal twins between whom only half of the DNA is shared.

Adoption studies also show that children of alcoholic biological parents have a higher likelihood of becoming alcoholics in adulthood compared on those of whose biological parents were non-alcoholics. This is considering that the children in both scenarios were adopted early in life. The genetic influence was also found to stronger in males than in females.

Differences in individual genetic makeup in brain chemistry also influences the way an individual will respond to drugs and alcohol. People who have a significantly fewer number of dopamine receptors in the brain than what is considered normal are more prone to develop severe forms of substance abuse. People with this trait may also have a far less ability to derive enjoyment from everyday activities, making it difficult for them to cope with day-to-day stresses. As a result they turn to drugs, to trigger the release of dopamine into the brain for a feel-good effect.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are influenced by individual’s experiences within their social settings such as family, home, school and work environment among other settings. Socialization plays an important function in human lives, therefore, many abuse and addiction cases begin by observation. Environmental factors include:

Family environment

Most drug abuse begins in the teenage years, while adolescents are still living with their parents. In most cases. This should give parents a good opportunity to intervene before the problem begins or escalates. Family interventions play a significant role as a risk factor through:

  • Use by family members
  • Lack of clear and consistent enforcement of rules
  • Supportive family environment
  • Lack of nurturing
  • Lack of guidance to help in rewarding good behavior
  • Lack of skills to help teenagers resist negative peer influences

Social environment

Watching an influential or familiar person consume drugs heavily impacts a developing child by communicating to them that it is acceptable to engage in such behaviors. The impact of peers has a big influence on the behavior on adolescents, owing to their susceptibility to emulate their peers to the extent of engaging into bad habits such as alcohol and substance abuse. They often do this to gain acceptance and to appear cool, whose consequence might include the continued use of drugs.

The desire to act like adults might drive adolescents into imitating the nearest adult image, leading to their portrayal of substance abuse as desirable habits. Once they begin, they might find it difficult to stop.

Sexual and Physical Abuse

Research has established that there is a higher incidence of drug abuse by victims of physical or sexual abuse that happened when they were children and/ or adolescents. It is believed that drug use in this particular group serves as a coping mechanism to the emotional scars caused by such experiences.


Research has established that black adolescents are less likely to begin using most drugs compared to white and Hispanic adolescents. However, as they progress in age there is a rapid increase in the rates of drugs use among blacks compared to whites and Hispanics. The other factors that are consistent with racial influence on substance abuse include poverty, neighborhood, higher prevalence of school dropout and the availability of illegal drugs.

Personality traits

Personality traits define the way individuals think, feel and behave. These are shaped by both environmental and genetic factors. Despite the fact that addictive personality disorders do not exist, studies have established that the susceptibility of most people to substance abuse is influenced by personality traits such as impulsiveness and aggressive tendencies that: affect people’s ability to control their emotions, conduct, relationships, and aggressive behaviors respectively. Both of these push an individual to abuse drugs as a measure to calm themselves.

The use of one drug tends to lead to the use of another. Alcohol and cigarettes are the most common beginner / gateway drugs, which are then followed by marijuana, with the occasional drinking becoming habitual. Next on the sequence are illicit drugs such as cocaine then crack cocaine. Many adolescents who abuse a given category of drugs do not necessarily progress into the use of stronger drugs. Many also stop before the drug use becomes a problem.