You’re at a party where the host offers you and your friends drugs. As you decline, two of your friends agree to try an opioid pill for the first time. While the first moves on from the experience, deciding it’s not for them, your other friend tries it a second time.
That second time becomes a third, and then a fourth. Within weeks, your friend is dependent on opioids and on a dangerous path to full-blown addiction. Their behavior changes, they lose interest in hobbies, their relationships are dwindling, and life becomes about chasing the next high.
Stories like these are reality for youths and teens across the country. It takes only days for addiction to develop, and studies show even the first dose of an opioid can have physiological effects(1). But what exactly makes one person more likely to develop addiction than another?
The answer is a complex relationship between biology, environment, and mental wellbeing—and one every person should be aware of before trying any type of addictive substance. First, let’s dive into what addiction is before learning the risk factors involved.
See also:Kara’s Story of Hope
What is Addiction?
Addition is a medical disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use, and it all starts in the brain (2). Despite harmful consequences, the medical illness of addiction causes you to desire and choose drugs over and over again.
Drug addiction changes the structure of the brain and how it works. Addictive substances such as opioids target the brain’s reward system, releasing feelings of happiness, pleasure, and euphoria known as a “high”. Over time, those addicted develop tolerance to drugs and require higher dosages to get the same high.
Risk Factors for Addiction
While anyone can become addicted to opioids, some have a higher risk. Let’s explore some of the risk factors for addiction and the role they play in developing a substance use disorder.
The genes you inherit play a major role in your risk for developing addiction.
According to theNational Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly half of your addiction risk to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is driven by genetics(3). While the science is still unraveling, researchers have found that variations in certain genes greatly contribute to this increased risk. Fortunately, a supportive and healthy environment can provide some protection against your chances of exposure to opioids as well as developing an addiction to them.
Your environment includes not only your surroundings, but also the family, friends, and support systems around you. Environmental factors that raise your risk for addiction include(4):
- Parent neglect or abuse
- Lack of parental involvement
- Peer pressure to try opioids
- Availability of opioids in social groups
- Culture of opioids use at school, work, or social settings
Lowering your addiction risk may mean avoiding or limiting time with the people and places in your environment that encourage drug use.
The earlier in life you use drugs, the higher your chances of becoming addicted to them. That’s because adolescent and teen brains are still maturing, leaving them vulnerable to long-lasting influence of substances (2). One study showed around 74 percent of those using drugs tried them first at the age of 17 or younger(5). The data highlights the need for early intervention programs that teach the risks of opioid use to children and teenagers.
Those who have pre-existing mental illnesses may have a higher risk for addiction. Examples of mental disorders that can impact addiction risk include(6):
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive Compulsives Disorder
Because those with mental health disorders typically need extra support in navigating life stressors, drugs like opioids may offer a reprieve from overwhelming emotions and symptoms of the disorder. Ultimately, addiction worsens every aspect of health including physical, mental, and emotional well-being. But drugs might feel like a temporary fix to issues that require long-term, professional support.
A family history of drug and/or alcohol abuse is one of the biggest risk factors in developing addiction.
The reasoning runs deeper than genetics. Inherited genes certainly play a role in pre-disposed risks. But coupled with early exposure and modeling of drug use, addiction risks increase tremendously. If a child grows learning that drugs help adults cope, their chances of trying similar coping strategies as they age also go up.
Having positive role models in your life with healthy coping strategies may offer support to those growing up around drug use.
You Don’t Have to Be a Statistic
Anyone can become addicted to opioids, but having one or more of these factors increases your risks for developing addiction. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a statistic. You can learn about the dangers of opioids. And if there comes a time when you must make a choice, you can make one with knowledge on your side.
Learn more about GameChanger
GameChangers’ Opioid and Substance Misuse Prevention Program was born out of collaboration between GameChangers and theHazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The mission leans on student-peer leadership to encourage children to make smart, healthy decision about opioids, alcohol, and other substances.
To learn more or seek help, visitgamechangerusa.org.
- Opioid Addiction. The Science of Addiction. John Hopkins Medicine. Accessed from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/opioids/science-of-addiction.html
- Do You Know Your Risk for Addiction? Heads Up. 2008/ Accessed from: https://headsup.scholastic.com/teachers/do-you-know-your-risk-for-addiction/
- Genetics: The Blueprint of Health and Disease. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2019. Accessed from: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction
- Risk Factors for Addiction. Legg, Timothy. Healthline. 25 August 2016. Accessed from: https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/risk-factors
- Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 17 July 2014. Accessed from: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/WebFiles_TEDS_SR142_AgeatInit_07-10-14/TEDS-SR142-AgeatInit-2014.pdf
- NIDA. Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness. 13 April 2021. Accessed from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness