Substance Abuse and the Disabled

Substance abuse often occurs simultaneously with many different types of disabilities. This includes physical, mental and emotional disabilities whether they developed before or after substance abuse, dependence or addiction set in. While addiction is a very individual disease, people with disabilities often turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with or self-medicating their problems. Conversely, some people who have severe substance abuse issues may develop learning, cognitive, emotional and even physical disabilities as a result of their drug use or simply as an unrelated development. Whatever the case may be, those who suffer from both addiction and one or more disabilities are at a distinct disadvantage. Thankfully, effective treatment is available right now.

Rates of drug abuse and drug addiction are significantly higher among people with disabilities than among the standard American population. Disabled people are under different types of stress – depending upon their disability – and therefore may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or as a means of better integration with peer groups. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Substance use disorders occur more often in persons with disabilities than in the general population. This includes problems related to the abuse of prescription medications as well as illicit drugs. In the general population, alcoholism affects 10% of individuals and 5% are addicted to drugs.” Additionally, “The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2002) estimates that approximately 4.7 million American adults with a disability have a co-occurring substance abuse problem.” And, “Persons with any type of disability experience substance abuse at rates 2 to 4 times that of the general population.” (1)

However, it should be noted that some disabilities actually prevent substance abuse by their very nature. For instance, physical injuries to the brain or central nervous system that cause complete or partial incapacitation would naturally make it difficult to abuse drugs or alcohol. People who are not cognizant enough to make and act on decisions like using drugs typically do not experience addiction problems. However, caretakers and other health care professionals can contribute to an eventual dependence or addiction if a proper medication management program is not in place.

One of the most disturbing problems related to substance abuse and disabilities is confusion in the medical setting that can lead to misdiagnosis or the complete absence of a diagnosis. This is because substance abuse problems can often manifest or appear as learning or emotional disabilities. In some cases, legitimate disabilities may also seem like substance abuse problems. Dr. C. Lynn Fox and Dr. Shirley E. Forbing wrote in a paper on the topic that;

“The effects of substance abuse have produced a population of students who exhibit behaviors similar to the behaviors of many youth with learning problems. Often such students are mislabeled as learning handicapped (including learning disability, behavioral disorder, and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder), when their primary problem is actually one of chemical abuse.” (2)

While this study and its results were largely focused on children, young adults and the education system, it can also be easily applied to adults. This has implications for the workforce and the general populace, as some adults that appear developmentally disabled may actually be suffering from a drug or alcohol problem. And as is the case with young students, some people may be seen as irresponsible or erratic in their behaviors and deemed a drug user when in actuality they have learning, emotional or other disabilities. Whatever the case may be, more education about disabilities and substance abuse will be critical to recognizing these conditions when they occur independently and simultaneously – both in the education field and in the workforce.

Genetics play a large role in substance abuse and disabilities. Diseases as seemingly different as alcoholism and dyslexia can both be passed down in the same manner from parent to child. However, it can be difficult to determine whether substance abuse or alcoholism (when co-occurring with a disability) is a genetic trait or not because so many people with disabilities turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. In fact, these stresses extend to the family of disabled people and often manifest in the form of addiction or alcoholism. In a study on depression and substance abuse in young men, The National Center for Biotechnology Information found the following:

“The results revealed that the handicapped men had more alcohol-related problems, were more likely to have used drugs, and had more instances of depression requiring mental health care. The family histories revealed more alcohol-related problems in the mothers and more drug use in the fathers of the handicapped men than in the control families.” (3) The study made it clear that families of disabled people suffered as well and in some cases contributed to both the disabilities and substance abuse that subsequently occurred in the afflicted individual.

Despite the common occurrence of addiction and developmental and physical disabilities, treatment is widely available and most professionals are cognizant of the issues related to these two conditions. Effective treatment methods must take each condition into account independently and treat accordingly when possible. But because disabilities vary considerably by type, it can be difficult to describe an ideal treatment modality for every possible condition or combination of conditions. However, in general these disabilities will be treated with different types of medication and therapy.

Addiction and alcoholism treatment usually involves a residential inpatient drug treatment program, outpatient treatment, or a day/night treatment program. In some cases these programs may be “stepped down” from level to level. In almost all cases they will involve medication and treatment of co-occurring conditions where appropriate, individual, group and family therapy sessions, and addiction/coping skills and education programs.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse and a disability, you should know that you don’t have to fight this alone. We have experts standing by 24 hours per day that you can discuss your options with confidentially and free of further obligation. Just call the number at the top of your screen to learn more now.

(1) US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Disability – Substance Abuse and Disability
(2) Fox, C. Lynn, PhD and Forbing, Shirley E. Overlapping Symptoms of Substance Abuse and Learning Handicaps: Implications for Educators January 1991 Vol. 24 No. 1 24-31 Journal of Learning Disabilities
(3) National Center for Biotechnology Information Depression and Substance Abuse in Handicapped Young Men

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