August 4, 2014

Substance Abuse

Definition of Substance Abuse

The World Health Organization defines substance abuse as the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.

When someone regularly uses alcohol or drugs despite negative consequences, they may be addicted. They may not be aware that their behaviour is out of control and that they are causing problems for themselves and others. Addiction involves psychological dependence and may or may not also include physical dependence.

“Dependence syndrome” is a cluster of behavioural, cognitive, and physiological effects that develop after repeated substance use. Dependence syndrome typically includes a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state.

Psychological dependence is also known as dependence of the mind. When a person is psychologically dependent, it becomes extremely hard for them to stop using or even thinking about the drug. Strong cravings for the drug may be triggered by internal or external cues. The addiction is reinforced by consuming the drug in response to a trigger.

Physical dependence is observed when the user needs the drug to function normally and has negative symptoms of withdrawal when the user stops or decreases use of the drug.

When the user becomes accustomed to a particular dose of a drug and needs higher dosages in order to obtain the same effects, he or she is likely to have developed tolerance to the drug. Users with increased tolerance are at higher risk of overdose.

Effects of substance abuse

Long-term substance abuse causes changes to the brain and body that can become permanent. This may affect:

  • judgment
  • decision making
  • learning
  • memory
  • behaviour
  • physical health


After using a substance regularly or after using high doses, withdrawal symptoms occur when a person stops or reduces taking it. Withdrawal symptoms can vary and can depend on the kind of drug used, but some withdrawal symptoms can be the opposite of the acute effects seen with the drug.

For example, the loss of appetite seen with stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine can be followed by ravenous hunger. The decreased sensation of fatigue associated with stimulant use can be followed by feelings of extreme fatigue and sleepiness. Withdrawal can occur with illegal drugs or prescription drugs.


Signs of Overdose

It is of grave importance these days, to recognize the signs of overdose. An overdose occurs when the person takes more of a drug than their body can handle. An overdose may result in serious, harmful damage or death. If you are worried your loved one uses dangerous drugs, talk to them.

Look for these symptoms of overdose:

  • pinpoint or dilated pupils
  • changes in core body temperature (hypothermia or hyperthermia)
  • changes in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate
  • bluish skin
  • loss of consciousness which may lead to coma
  • seizures

Preventing substance abuse

Education is the best way to prevent substance abuse. Talk to your children and teens about the effects of drugs and alcohol. Families, schools, communities, and the media can all help with this education. Early intervention programs are also more effective when all of these groups are involved.

Resources from Health Canada:

  • Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service
    This service is available to people across B.C. needing help with any kind of substance abuse issues 24 hours a day. It provides information and referral to education, prevention and treatment services and regulatory agencies.
    Toll-Free: 1-800-663-1441
    Lower Mainland: 604-660-9382
  • HealthLink BC
    HealthLink BC helps you learn about health topics, check your symptoms and find the health services and resources that you need for healthy living. Call 8-1-1 to consult with a nurse, pharmacist or dietitian or visit for easy access to help you find the health services you need, closest to where you live. Translation services are available in over 130 languages on request.
    Anywhere in B.C.: 8-1-1
    TTY (Deaf and hearing-impaired): 7-1-1
  • BC Crisis Line
    Toll-Free: 310-6789 (no area code needed)
  • Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre
    A provincial resource centre that provides mental health and substance use information, resources and peer support to children, youth and their families from across B.C.
    Toll-Free: 1-800-665-1822
    Lower Mainland: 604-875-2084
  • BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services
    Tel: 604-875-2345 or toll-free (in B.C. only)
  • Mind Check
    Designed to help youth and young adults in British Columbia check out how they are feeling and quickly connect to mental health resources and support. Support includes education, self-care tools, website links, and assistance in connecting to local professional resources.
  • Here to Help
    Provides access to information on mental health, mental disorders and substance use problems and disorders.