What is Substance Use Disorder?

By Kate Pauley, MFTC

verified by Psychology Today

One of the most pervasive mental health disorders in America is Substance Use Disorder (SUD). According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 12 Americans suffers from a substance use disorder.  Substance usage affects almost every family in America, but how do you tell the difference between what is a substance use disorder and what is just a casual glass of wine?

How do you know if there is a problem?

Being able to distinguish a substance problem from controlled usage is the first step to getting someone the help they deserve.  Here are some warning signs that a substance use problem may be present:

  • Substance use begins to impact the person’s professional, recreational, or social life.  This may look like someone being consistently late, ignoring friends, missing events, isolating
  • A significant amount of the person’s time is spent thinking about, obtaining, using, or recovering from substances
  • The person requires high amounts of the substance to feel any effect (high tolerance) and often overuses 
  • Continuing usage despite physically or emotionally harming those around the individual
  • The person ensures that there is a consistent supply of their substance of choice and possibly is overspending financially on obtaining substances
  • The person exhibits an inability to cut back or stop drinking/using
  • The person experiences withdrawal when they try to stop.

Who does substance use affect?

The scary thing about substance use is that it can affect anyone.  There are several reasons why a person may develop a substance use disorder which ranges from hereditary factors, environmental factors, social environment, and/or other mental health disorders.  Family members of individuals suffering from substance use disorders are also affected by substance use problems and there are resources for family members, like al-anon meetings, as well (see below).

There are several factors that might heighten the risk for a person developing a substance use disorder:

  • Having a blood relative with a substance use disorder or substance disorders than run in the family
  • Lacking support from family and friends
  • Using high-risk drugs like opioids and amphetamines
  • Co-occurring mental illness

What to do

  • Assess for suicide risk or harm – the first thing to do is ensure that the person is safe. Is the person in crisis? Have they misused or overused any substances?  If you suspect a drug overdose, immediately call 9-1-1. For more information on overdose: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/overdose
  • Listen non-judgmentally – Try to hear the person, what their needs are, what their pains are.  Seek to hear them.  Listen more than speak, ask questions, be curious to hear what they are experiencing.  Be there as a support for this person, rather than “tell” or give suggestions about what to do. 
  • Give reassurance and information – See below for some links to useful information
  • Encourage professional help – There are many treatment options for substance use disorders ranging from mental health counseling, intensive outpatient substance use treatment, inpatient substance use treatment.
  • Encourage healthy living – Things like exercise, healthy nutrition, mindfulness, and utilizing coping skills are all positive things to add in, however, these healthy lifestyle changes may not solve the underlying problem. 

Resources for Virtual Recovery Programs:


Helpful hotlines (courtesy of The Recovery Village):

Resources for family members of those suffering from SUD:


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