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What is Substance Abuse?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Substance abuse is the process of using legal or illegal drugs or other chemicals that have an impact on a person in a detrimental way. The term can be used to apply to both criminal and non-criminal acts, as substance abuse can refer to overindulgence of legal drugs as well. Someone may abuse alcohol in a way that never specifically causes him or her to break the law, but it may still have serious negative consequences and impacts both the abuser’s life and the lives of those around him or her. Substance abuse can also involve the use of illegal drugs and can often involve one or more instances of legal repercussions such as police arrest and incarceration.

The type of substance abuse depends on the preferences of the abuser and what sorts of substances are most readily available to him or her. Some people may engage in otherwise ordinary acts such as drinking or smoking cigarettes, but take that to a degree of use that surpasses what is generally socially acceptable. It is this level of usage, when a person goes beyond what society generally accepts as moderate use, which begins to enter the realm of substance abuse. This level of use also typically coincides with negative impacts on an abuser’s life.

A person might also begin to use illegal drugs or legal chemicals in a way other than intended and similarly become an abuser of that particular substance. Some drugs can have relatively immediate negative impacts on a person’s life. Others may allow someone to maintain a fairly normal life for an extended period of time.

Regarding either situation, the primary deciding factor of when a person has begun to truly abuse a substance is when it begins to make a negative impact on the person’s life and yet he or she still uses it. These can be either social troubles or health problems and can affect him or her directly or the people around the abuser. The person usually experiences the consequences of such negative effects and yet continues to use the drug through either dependency or apathy toward himself or herself or others.

In the United States (U.S.), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has created the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to help fight the negative impact of drug abuse on society. The SAMHSA can help family members of someone dealing with substance abuse to find treatment or health services for themselves and the abuser. Though someone dealing with severe drug issues can be extremely difficult to confront and deal with, contacting a professional for assistance can be an excellent place to start.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By softener — On May 10, 2011

I've had substance abuse issues in the past and I can confirm that you do develop apathy toward yourself and others, all you can do is think about your addiction. I guess the only advice I can offer is if you think you have a problem with substance abuse is don't try to "white knuckle" it, meaning don't just try to quit cold turkey without any help. If you've been using substances for a long time you are highly likely to relapse if you try to quit without any kind of substance abuse counseling or programs. Call a hotline or show up at a meeting, they're all free.

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