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Understanding the Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

Risk factors for substance abuse are issues that are known to occur more often in the lives of people who develop substance use disorders (SUD) compared to people who do not develop substance abuse problems. Such factors may be related to the individual, their family, and the community and environment in which they were raised and live.[1]

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Identifying an individual’s risk factors for substance abuse early on can help them access services to make them more resilient and less susceptible to drug use. No single risk factor causes substance abuse, and often, people are faced with multiple risk factors at once. 

Importantly, risk factors are only an indicator of a possible problem. They do not mean an individual will struggle with substance abuse just because they are present in someone’s life. [1]

Genetic Risk Factors for Addiction   

A family history of drug use is a risk factor for substance abuse. Genetic factors can influence an individual’s vulnerability to addiction, making it important to be aware of your family history. Proactive measures can be taken to mitigate your own likelihood of developing a problem with substance use. 

Genetic and family risk factors for substance abuse include the following:[3]

  • Family members with substance use disorders
  • Parents who use drugs or alcohol 
  • Limited parental involvement growing up
  • Parents or family with favorable attitudes toward substance use
  • Family history of mental health issues

Environmental Risk Factors

The environment in which someone grows up can increase their risk of substance abuse. And the social and cultural environment in which one lives can favor substance use or protect against it. 

For example, low-income communities impacted by poverty and violence are an environmental risk factor for drug use. Societal norms that make substance use appear okay are also risk factors.[2] Likewise the impact of peer pressure and exposure to substances all increase the likelihood of substance abuse for both adolescents and adults. 

Additional environmental risk factors for substance abuse include the following:[1]

  • High rates of unemployment and crime
  • Poor housing options 
  • Prevalence of drug use in the community 
  • Living in a minority community with racial discrimination 
  • Low rates of education
  • Poor access to health care and social services 

Personal Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

In addition to family and environmental risk factors for addiction, individuals may possess qualities that increase their risk of drug use. Personal negative experiences and a history of trauma can lead someone to use substances. 

Personal risk factors for substance abuse can include the following:[1]

  • Emotional problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • School problems or dropping out of school
  • Unemployment 
  • Early drug use
  • Lack of connection to one’s family, school, or community 
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships 
  • Being vulnerable to negative peer pressure
  • Physical or learning disabilities 
  • Unstable family or living situation 
  • Mental health issues 

A personal history of mental health disorders increases the risk of substance use. Many people who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental health issue. 

Recent data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that more than 60% of adolescents participating in community substance use disorder treatment programs also met the diagnostic criteria for a mental health disorder. Likewise, approximately one in four people with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder.[4]

Importance of Early Intervention & Addiction Prevention

Early intervention and education serve as protective factors against substance abuse. For people with risk factors for substance abuse, protective factors can mitigate the negative impacts. Young people with exposure to multiple risk factors are at an increased risk for behavioral and substance use disorders, while young people with more protective factors have a reduced risk of substance abuse.[2]

Early intervention and interventions that target multiple factors in an individual’s life at once are key to mitigating the risk of drug abuse. Prevention techniques can include providing education about drug use in schools and communities. Individuals may also be referred for early intervention support services, such as in clinics or organizations who provide education on drug use. [2] 

It is important to seek help and take advantage of available resources if you are concerned about your risk factors for substance abuse. The sooner your concerns are addressed, the less likely you are to suffer from complications related to substance abuse. 

Resources for Substance Abuse

There are many resources available to support people struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. The best programs will target all the needs of the individual, including their mental, emotional, and physical health needs, while increasing protective factors and mitigating risk factors for further substance use. 

Finding treatment for a substance use disorder can be an intimidating task, but there is a lot of help out there waiting to be accessed. If you have insurance, check with your insurance plan to find out what type of treatment may be covered. Primary care doctors are also great resources when searching for treatment services. Doctors can conduct brief screenings and make appropriate referrals for further treatment. 

If you would rather search for services yourself online, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers free and confidential support Here are some of their resources:

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, don’t hesitate to seek help. Many different types of treatment services are available to help anyone struggling with any type of substance abuse. Here at Boca Recovery Center, we are ready to take your call today.

The sooner treatment is accessed, the less severe the impacts of substance abuse will be on the person’s life. It is never too soon or too late to seek treatment. 

Updated February 17, 2024
  1. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention: Risk factors. State of Hawaii Department of Health. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  2. Risk and Protective Factors. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  3. High-risk substance use among youth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 29, 2022. Accessed January 29, 2024.
  4. Part 1: The connection between substance use disorders and mental illness. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published April 2020. Accessed January 29, 2024.
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