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Why do some people get addicted to drugs and others do not?

November 8, 2021
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Drug and alcohol addiction is a complex brain disease and can last a person’s whole life. Addiction can be managed and treated with medication and therapy, but chances of relapse are always present. There’s a lot of stigma attached to addiction; there is a popular myth that quitting alcohol or drugs is a choice and is maintained by a lack of morals. Alcohol or drug abuse is often used as a coping mechanism for various stressors, contributing to an increased risk of addiction.

Dealing with excessive stress, managing withdrawal symptoms, and neurological changes caused by abuse make it difficult to quit. Many people want to stop and must not be blamed on willpower. There’s extensive research to show that there are several factors that trigger and maintain addiction requiring professional help to stay sober. 

Genetics account for approximately 50% of the reason why people become addicted to alcohol or substances. Hostile environment and development of young people such as physical or emotional abuse, impoverished upbringing, stress, lack of parental guidance can influence addiction. 70% of adolescents who’ve used alcohol or substances before age 13 develop clinical addiction within 7 years. Additionally, people suffering from mental illnesses are at high risk of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.

There are varying levels of severity, and treatment depends on various factors. People who haven’t been clinically diagnosed with addiction can usually quit by themselves or with support from their families. They can benefit from therapy depending on the underlying causes for their alcohol/substance use.

Early intervention is the best-case scenario for people with mild abuse or binge drinking. Screening and Brief Intervention(SBI) reduces the risk for persons at-risk. Therapists use Motivational Interviewing(MI) to assess the desire for quitting and help people change their behaviour by sticking with the treatment goals.

People with substance use disorder seek help from mental health professionals or spend time at a rehabilitation centre with regular follow-ups. The treatment plan, resident or out-patient, depends on the intensity and history of alcohol or substance abuse, substance(s) used, and comorbidities. Treatment involves behavioural therapy and medication after an assessment done by trained professionals. It also includes managing health problems. For example, people with severe addiction often endure withdrawal symptoms that need to be managed properly or can cause seizures or other health complications.

The treatment plan doesn’t depend on a person’s willpower but the severity and factors of abuse; it doesn’t mean they’re weak, despite what most people believe.

Biology of Addiction

Why Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?


First Step Towards Addiction

There are several reasons why people start taking drugs or alcohol. Some of them are:

  • Experimentation and fitting in with the crowd: These are 2 common reasons someone would try drugs or alcohol for the first time. It’s a new and different experience, especially since they’re considered an adventure or thrill. Younger generations may try to conform to the trends in their group for social acceptance and approval.
  • Self-medication: People, when suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression, might feel inclined to use drugs and alcohol to make themselves feel better. Many people either don’t know about the available treatment or feel not to seek help from mental health professionals due to the stigma attached to it. It seems like an easy fix but worsens the problems in the long run.
  • To enhance performance at the workplace or school: The stress of performing well affects a person’s mental health. The pressure to put in the extra effort and the anxiety caused by fear of failing might make people use alcohol and drugs to calm themselves.

Why Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?

Risk And Protective Factors Theory

Doctors David Hawkins and Richard Catalano developed the Risk and Protective Factors Theory. It’s a foundation approach that draws connections between risk and protective factors influencing a person’s behaviour. Higher protective factors in a young person mean a higher chance of preventing negative behaviours such as alcohol and drug use.

The theory states that individuals can be set up for success by decreasing the risk of alcohol and substance abuse when the number of protective factors is higher than the risk factors. It will help build more robust and resilient individuals and communities. These are beneficial to prevent both addiction and behavioural health issues.

There are 4 areas of concern: Society, community, family, and self. 

Some risk factors are the wide availability of alcohol and drugs, poverty, poor parenting, and academic failure.

Protective factors are laws limiting drug and alcohol availability, healthcare infrastructure, individual care to struggling students, and healthy family relationships.

People don’t exist in isolation. Hence, it’s necessary to treat each area of concern equally. For example, if the risk factor is parental negligence, the protective factor is family involvement instead of creating more jobs.

Having multiple risk factors contribute to how an individual will lead their adult life, and these effects are long-lasting. An individual’s background and failing to have more protective than risk factors in each domain can lead people to become alcohol or drug addicts. 

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Prevention 101

Risk and Protective Factors

The Role of Families in Onset of Addiction

Studies since the 1970s have shown that addiction largely depends on the experience that adolescents have with their parents or caregivers, and parents play a major role in shaping their child’s personalities.

Early experiences are a significant factor for the onset of addiction and psychological disorders. Parental neglect and a chaotic upbringing can cause poor socialisation, which can lead to anxiety issues and trauma. They might turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. 

There’s also a link between addiction and family interaction and structure. Genetics contribute to the onset of addiction and are heritable. People who have family members with addiction, including gambling, are at higher risk of becoming addicts themselves. Often there’s neglect where the family members might not know of their child’s associations with other people, i.e. friends and acquaintances. Addicts who took part in the study said they were not happy with their home life and had dysfunctional parents. They also didn’t have the same beliefs as them.


It’s vital to intervene as soon as possible if you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol or substance addiction. Seek help from a mental health professional and get an assessment done. You can also ask them about the treatment plan that will benefit you.

It’s safe to say that the causes of addiction are a person’s genetics, childhood experiences, and environment, among others. Addiction is a mental illness and doesn’t define who you are. The treatment depends on each person’s experiences and severity. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or lack the willpower to quit. 


Biology of Addiction. (2017, September 8). NIH News in Health.

Why Do People Get Addicted to Drugs? | Turnbridge. (n.d.). Turnbridge.Com.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). (2016, November). EARLY INTERVENTION, TREATMENT, AND MANAGEMENT OF SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS – Facing Addiction in America – NCBI Bookshelf. NCBI.

Center for Applied Research Solutions. (n.d.). Substance Use Disorder Prevention 101. Ca-Cpi.Org.

SAMHSA. (n.d.). Risk And Protective Factors. Samhsa.Gov.

Familial Risk Factors Favoring Drug Addiction Onset. (2014, December 31). Sci-Hub.Se.