Drug Myths Busted

Myth 1: Drug addiction is a voluntary behavior.

A person starts out as an occasional drug user, and that is a voluntary decision. But as time passes, something happens, and that person goes from being a voluntary drug user to being a compulsive drug user. Why? Because over time, continued use of addictive drugs changes your brain—at times in dramatic, toxic ways. At other times in more subtle ways, but virtually always in ways that result in compulsive and even uncontrollable drug use.

Myth 2: More than anything else, drug addiction is a character flaw.

Drug addiction is a brain disease. Every type of drug abuse has its own individual mechanism for changing how the brain functions. But regardless of which drug a person is addicted to, many of the effects it has on the brain are similar: they range from changes in the molecules and cells that make up the brain, to mood changes, to changes in memory processes and in such motor skills as walking and talking. And these changes have a huge influence on all aspects of a person's behavior. The drug becomes the single most powerful motivator in a drug abuser's existence. He or she will do almost anything for the drug. This comes about because drug use has changed the individual's brain and its functioning in critical ways.

Myth 3: You have to want drug treatment for it to be effective.

Virtually no one wants drug treatment. Two of the primary reasons people seek drug treatment are because the court ordered them to do so, or because loved ones urged them to seek treatment. Many scientific studies have shown convincingly that those who enter drug treatment programs in which they face "high pressure" to confront and attempt to surmount their addiction do comparatively better in treatment, regardless of the reason they sought treatment in the first place.

Myth 4: Treatment for drug addiction should be a one-shot deal.

Like many other illnesses, drug addiction typically is a chronic disorder. To be sure, some people can quit drug use "cold turkey," or they can quit after receiving treatment just one time at a rehabilitation facility. But most of those who abuse drugs require longer-term treatment, and in many instances, repeated treatment.

Myth 5: People don't need treatment. They can stop using drugs if they really want.

It is extremely difficult for people addicted to drugs to achieve and maintain long-term abstinence. Research shows that long-term drug use actually changes a person's brain function, causing them to crave the drug even more, making it increasingly difficult for the person to quit. Especially for adolescents, intervening and stopping substance abuse early is important, as children become addicted to drugs much faster than adults and risk greater physical, mental, and psychological harm from illicit drug use.

Myth 6: Treatment just doesn't work.

Treatment can help people. Studies who drug treatment reduces drug use by 40 to 60 percent and can significantly decrease criminal activity during and after treatment. There is also evidence that drug addiction treatment reduces the risk of HIV infection (intravenous drug users who enter and stay in treatment are up to six times less likely to become infected with HIV than other users) and improves the prospects for employment, with gains of up to 40 percent after treatment.

Myth 7: Nobody will voluntary seek treatment until they hit "rock bottom."

There are many things that can motivate a person to enter and complete substance abuse treatment before they hit "rock bottom." Pressure from family members and employers, as well as personal recognition that they have a problem, can be powerful motivating factors for individuals to seek treatment. For teens, parents and school administrators are often driving forces in getting them into treatment once problems at home or in school develop but before situations become dire.

Myth 8: People can successfully finish drug abuse treatment in a couple of weeks if they are truly motivated.

Research indicates a minimum of 90 days of treatment for residential and outpatient drug-free programs, and 21 days for a short-term inpatient program to have an effect. To maintain the treatment's effect, follow up supervision and support are essential. In all recovery programs the best predictor of success is length of treatment. Patients who remain at least a year are more than twice as likely to remain drug free, and a recent study showed adolescents who met or exceeded the minimum treatment time were over one and a half times more likely to abstain from drug and alcohol use.

Myth 9: People who continue to abuse drugs after treatment are hopeless.

Drug addiction is a chronic disorder; occasional relapse does not mean failure. Psychological stress from work or family problems, social cues (i.e. meeting individuals from one's drug-using past), or their environment (i.e. encountering streets, objects, or even smells associated with drug use) can easily trigger a relapse. Addicts are most vulnerable to drug use during the few months immediately following their release from treatment. Children are especially at risk for relapse when forced to return to family and environmental situations that initially led them to abuse substances. Recovery is a long process and frequently requires multiple treatment attempts before complete and consistent sobriety can be achieved.

Source: Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. (October 1999). National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Health; Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2001).