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What Is Substance Use and Addiction?

Drug addiction is a complex process, and problematic patterns of substance use or behaviours can interfere with a person’s life. CMHA Ontario explains that addiction can be broadly defined as a condition that leads to a compulsive engagement with a stimulus despite negative or harmful consequences. This can lead to physical or behavioural addiction and mental disorders.

There are two main categories of addictive disorders:

  • Substance addictions – Addiction to one or several substances. Examples include addiction to opioids, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine, etc.
White pills, syringe with a drugs dose, narcotics, glass with alcohol drink on a wooden table, close-up view. Concept of addiction and bad habits
  • Non-Substance addictions – Addiction to a behaviour or process. Examples include gambling disorder, gaming addiction, porn addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, and internet addiction, etc.

Both types of addiction are mental disorders characterized by:

  • Cravings
  • Loss of control
  • Compulsion to engage in the behaviour
  • Persisting in the behaviour despite negative consequences

While many people engage in behaviours like gambling or internet use without problems, some develop dependency and addiction. When the behaviour interferes with daily life, relationships, work, or health, it may signal an addictive disorder requiring treatment and support.

How Common Is Substance Use and Addiction?

Substance and alcohol use disorder is quite common internationally, and statistics vary depending on the substance being consumed. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 21.6% of Canadians (about 6 million people) met the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Alcohol was the most common substance for which people met the criteria for abuse or dependence at 18.1%.

Opioid and drug misuse have been a growing concern in Canada. A total of 1,904 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred between January and March 2023. This is an average of 21 deaths per day. Ontario is one of the provinces with the highest number of opioid-related deaths.

While many people can consume substances without significant harm, some experience ongoing adverse consequences from substance use disorders and drug misuse-related problems.

How Do You Diagnose Addiction?

Addiction is diagnosed by a mental health professional who evaluates your signs and symptoms. Physical symptoms may include high tolerance, withdrawal, cravings, changes in appearance, and health problems. Cognitive symptoms include impaired judgment, memory issues, mood swings, and mental and physical health disorders. Emotional symptoms often involve guilt, shame, denial, and hopelessness. Behavioural signs of substance addiction include loss of control, compulsive substance use disorder, despite consequences, and neglecting responsibilities or interests. A combination of physical, psychological, emotional, and behavioural factors are assessed to determine if problematic patterns of substance use meet the criteria for an addiction diagnosis.

What Are Some of the Risk Factors for Addiction?

Addiction risk arises from biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors. Genetics account for about 50% of addiction vulnerability. Personality traits like impulsivity, thrill-seeking, and disinhibition also raise risk. Early exposure to substances during key developmental stages in adolescence and young adulthood increases addiction susceptibility as the brain’s reward system is still forming. Psychological risk factors, like trauma, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, are associated with higher addiction rates. Social and peer influences provide access, model risky behaviour, and create peer pressure to use substances. Environmental factors like physical or sexual abuse, poor parental monitoring, and low socioeconomic status contribute to increased risk. For more information on how mental illness influences substance abuse, please read this post.

The symptoms and severity of addiction can vary based on substance type, frequency of drug use itself, duration of use, method of administration, and individual differences. Loss of control, compulsion, cravings, and continued use of other drugs despite negative consequences are hallmarks of addiction. Signs defining an addiction may be physical, psychological, emotional, social, and/or behavioural in nature.

What Are the Consequences of Addiction?

Addiction has devastating impacts not just on those with the disorder but also on their loved ones and society as a whole. At the neurological level, addiction affects the brain’s reward, learning, memory, and motivation centres, disrupting the normal functioning of the developing brain. This drives continued substance use and addiction despite negative consequences.

For individuals, addiction increases overdose risks, injuries, infections, organ damage, cancer, stroke, mental illness, suicide, and more. Relationships suffer from repeated lying, arguments, neglect, distrust, domestic abuse, and divorce. Addicted parents often provide inadequate care for their children. Work and school performance decline due to absences, accidents, poor concentration, and decision-making.

Legal issues include DUI charges, possession arrests, and crimes committed to obtain substances. Finances are drained on substance costs. Society bears healthcare, criminal justice, and lost productivity costs. Family members experience shame, anxiety, depression and codependency. Friends, colleagues and communities feel the emotional and economic ripple effects. However, with proper treatment and support, recovery is possible.

Withdrawal Therapy

Seeking addiction treatment before the disease progresses can greatly improve outcomes and prevent the wide-ranging negative consequences to health, relationships, finances, and more. Inpatient withdrawal management involving medical detox provides a safe way to clear substances from the body while managing uncomfortable and potentially dangerous physical withdrawal symptoms. This involves a stay in a specialized detox facility with 24/7 medical monitoring and medications to alleviate symptoms like nausea, anxiety, pain, seizures, hallucinations, and more. The detox process prepares a patient for the next phase of addiction treatment.

After detox, customized treatment plans address the patient’s unique needs through services like:


Medications can be useful at various stages of substance use treatment to address different aspects of addiction and support the individual in their recovery process. There are various medications that are prescribed for treating withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and prevent relapse. 

Medication-assisted treatment provides a holistic approach to managing addiction’s physical and psychological components.

Counselling and Therapy

Individual, group and family counselling help patients understand the deeper reasons behind their addiction, build motivation, find healthy coping skills, manage trauma and change unhealthy thought and behaviour patterns. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps identify triggers, develop refusal skills, and promote problem-solving and healthy decision-making.

Multidimensional family therapy improves communication and supports addiction recovery for the patient and family members. Therapy equips patients with tools to navigate potential relapse triggers and maintain sobriety after treatment.

Ongoing counselling provides accountability and an outlet to discuss issues as they arise in recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups like 12-step programs provide social reinforcement for abstinence and a forum to share experiences with others in recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous use a sponsorship model and step-work to promote addiction recovery through acceptance and lifestyle change. SMART Recovery focuses on self-empowerment and scientific methods.

Groups offer community, accountability, and proof that recovery is possible. Online support groups and forums bring added convenience. Support groups are often used as aftercare following more intensive treatment. They provide a safe space and peer empowerment.

Rehabilitation Programs

Inpatient, full residential treatment, and outpatient rehab deliver comprehensive addiction treatment, including medical detox, counselling, therapy, and aftercare planning. Inpatient facilities offer 24/7 medical monitoring in a drug and alcohol-free environment. Partial hospitalization keeps patients overnight while allowing daytime work or school.

Outpatient options offer more flexibility for maintaining life responsibilities during treatment. Rehab programs create personalized and effective treatment plans, including detox, individual and group therapies, family education, relapse prevention skills and follow-up care.

A personalized mix of therapies, medications, support groups, and relapse prevention education provides a holistic approach to treating addiction’s complex psychological and physiological components. Withdrawal therapy through medical detox combined with long-term treatment fosters sustainable recovery. The journey is lifelong, but with dedication and support, many find improved mental health, healthier relationships, purpose, and quality of life.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, contact mental health professionals at CMHA to learn about treatment options. Taking that first step can lead to a lifetime of healing and hope.

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Struggling with addiction? You don’t have to face it alone.

Contact the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Ontario to explore your treatment options and take the first step towards recovery. Contact us at 1-866-345-0183 or visit our Get Support page.

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Community Withdrawal Management (18+)

A free and confidential service for CMHA clients 18+ struggling with substance use. Offers support for safe withdrawal, education, and personalized care plans, with services provided virtually, by phone, or face-to-face.

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