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The Transition House, Inc.

What are the risk factors for substance abuse?


It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a person more likely to struggle with substance abuse, but decades of research have given psychologists a better understanding of several risk factors. These risk factors can be classified into the following categories: biological, environmental, and developmental.

The impact of risk factors will often vary from person to person and occur throughout the lifespan. What will be a risk factor for one person may not be one for another, and none can be a definitive indicator of drug or substance abuse later in life. However, being aware of the risk factors of substance abuse can help individuals at-risk or struggling with this disorder take the necessary steps for prevention and treatment.

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Biological Risks for Substance Abuse

Genetics can play a significant role in how individuals react to addictive substances. For example, impulse control occurs in the brain, and this ability varies among individuals. It is common that a person seeking treatment for substance abuse will also have a co-occurring mental illness. Recognizing how biology and genes affect addiction is key to prevention.

Some examples of biological risks for substance abuse include:

Environmental Risks for Substance Abuse

Much of our behavior is learned from others in our families or social groups. When we are children, we learn how to cope with stess and form healthy relationships. Witnessing substance abuse, addiction or other forms of trauma in our family, neighborhood or school can have a lasting effect on how we view drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances.

Environmental risks for substance abuse include:

  • Poverty
  • Domestic violence or emotional abuse
  • Peer pressure

Developmental Risks for Substance Abuse

Childhood and adolescence are a significant time in our life during which we develop healthy (or unhealthy) ways of coping with stress. For example, having a parent who is an alcoholic will greatly affect what we view as healthy coping mechanisms, which may make the risk for substance abuse and addiction much higher later in life.

Developmental risks for substance abuse vary from person to person. A few examples include:

  • Parental neglect or abuse
  • Behavioral problems at school or work
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships

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