Substance abuse has become alarmingly commonplace in our society. While information abounds about the many consequences of alcohol and drugs, there are more people experimenting with these addictive substances than ever before. No matter how pressing an issue addiction has become, more people are becoming curious about substance abuse than there are people overcoming the disease.
Surveys have shown that at any given time, about one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 will have used an illicit drug recreationally sometime over the previous month. If you extend that term to “anytime in their lives,” the number become astonishingly higher. Take marijuana as an example. Marijuana is widely considered the least dangerous and most accessible of all illicit drugs, and almost half of the US—44 percent to be specific—admit to having tried marijuana at some point in their lives. Back in 1969, only six percent of Americans could admit to having had at least one prior experience with marijuana.1 When you consider that approximately one in 10 people who experiment with mind-altering substances become addicted, it’s not all that surprising that nearly 10 percent of the nationwide population—roughly equivalent to the entire state of Texas—is addicted to alcohol or drugs.2
In recent years, researchers have been searching for the causes of addiction. If we could determine what it is, exactly, that makes people susceptible to addiction—whether it’s a biological or genetic trait, social factors, one’s environment, some combination of these factors, or even something else entirely—we could potentially divert the development of addiction and possibly cure those who’d become chemically dependent. With the advanced technologies that are available today, there’s particular excitement surrounding the genetic piece of the puzzle. However, with addiction having become such a major issue in all demographics, perhaps it’s time to turn our attention back to the environment.
Deconstructing the Environment
But what exactly does one mean by “environment”? By definition, environment refers to the circumstances or conditions by which a person is surrounded.3 It’s a rather vague, blanket term that is often used to indicate a person’s immediate surroundings, generally consisting of a place that contains people and things. However, researchers have deconstructed the concept of environment, breaking it down into four primary domains: the family domain, peer domain, work or school domain and the community domain.4
The Family Domain
The role of family in a person’s addiction is often reserved for discussions of biology or genetics. But while we’re genetically linked to our loved ones, there’s no denying that one’s family members also make up one’s overall home life or one’s home environment. The family domain refers to the social and circumstantial characteristics of a family rather than to any genetic material that may be shared between them, and there’s no question that the family domain can have a huge influence on whether or not a person develops a substance abuse problem. Conversely, a person’s substance abuse has major, observable effects on his or her family members as well. This often results in poorer communication, decreased empathy and an overall reduction in the harmony of one’s household.5 Additionally, studies have found that families in which there are favorable attitudes toward mind-altering substances or in which there has been or is violence is much more likely to experience substance abuse problems.
If there are issues in the family domain that could be attributed to a person’s substance abuse problem in some way, it’s important that those issues be resolved or else the recovering addict will have little chance of sustaining his or her sobriety.
Since the family domain and a person’s development of alcoholism or drug addiction are often connected, addicts are frequently encouraged to seek treatment at inpatient or residential facilities, which separate them from home environments that may have contributed to their addictions. It’s also common for there to be codependency issues in the family unit, which often results in the addict’s substance abuse being enabled. Therefore, most addiction treatment programs include and encourage family therapy, which discovers any codependency and enabling in the family unit so those behaviors can be addressed before the patient returns home. If there are issues in the family domain that could be attributed to a person’s substance abuse problem in some way, it’s important that those issues be resolved or else the recovering addict will have little chance of sustaining his or her sobriety.
The Peer Domain
The peer domain consists of a person’s social group and the places where one congregates with friends. According to researchers at the University of Utah, having peers who abuse alcohol or drugs is the most significant contributor to a person developing a substance abuse problem.4 In fact, it’s been proven that a peer group—in addition to relationships with immediate family members—plays a central role in a person’s development and can even serve as a stand-in family for individuals who do not have stable, cohesive families.6 Therefore, it should come as little surprise that peers could likewise prove to be such a destructive influence as well.
But peers can be just as instrumental to an addict’s recovery as they can be to an alcohol or drug problem. Specifically, sober peers and peers who are supportive of recovery can be observed providing encouragement and motivation to individuals in recovery. Similarly, people in recovery are encouraged to pursue relationships with other recovering addicts as this provides them with people to whom they can relate, giving and receiving advice during times of need or uncertainty.7
The Work or School Domain
While the peer domain is associated with a person’s chosen social circle, one’s work or school domain refers to the circumstances—and the environment’s inhabitants—to which he or she is obligated. A person’s demeanor at work or school is naturally going to be different from what it would be at home or with peers, and relationships with co-workers or fellow students are usually much less personal.
A person’s work domain might have minimal influence on the development of his or her addiction, but sometimes the individual’s career is in one of a few industries in which substance abuse tends to be more common. In such industries—such as retail and food service—relaxed hiring procedures are a major draw to substance users who would be unable to pass drug screens, resulting in those industries containing higher rates of addiction among employees.8
For both work and school domains, some of the biggest risk factors for substance abuse include the stress caused by a decrease in performance, forced participation and resistance to the commitment required by holding a job or attending school.
Meanwhile, the school domain of adolescents and college students can be much more significant since school environments tend to be more social and consist of very concentrated demographics. For both work and school domains, some of the biggest risk factors for substance abuse include the stress caused by a decrease in performance, forced participation and resistance to the commitment required by holding a job or attending school.
The Community Domain
Community is the fourth and final domain, and also happens to be another very significant potential contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. The extent to which the community domain can contribute to a person becoming addicted is predicated on the extent of an individual’s involvement with his or her community. As well, communities in which very little substance abuse occurs would have very little chance of stimulating a person’s substance abuse.
The unfortunate reality is that there are very few communities that are untouched by substance abuse. In areas where favorable attitudes toward alcohol and drug abuse pervade, it’s much more likely that people who maintain community involvement could eventually adopt and act on those favorable attitudes. However, community can be as helpful to one’s recovery as it can be instrumental in a person’s addiction. Studies have shown that recovering addicts who become part of recovery communities—areas where there are higher concentrations of recovering addicts—are much more likely to remain sober than those who return to their home communities where they are isolated.9 The same effect has been observed in group homes for those in recovery, which are often called transitional living facilities or sober houses.
It is difficult to identify one specific environmental factor that is to blame for addiction. In reality, it’s likely that people develop addictions due to influences coming at them from all angles. But the important thing is to become aware of the many potential sources of influence so that one can take the necessary steps to mitigate them, steering away from what is too often a fatal disease.
Written by Dane O’Leary