When you were growing up, you might have had someone in the family who battled drug or alcohol addiction. You might have overheard your parents or other family members talking about that person lacking the necessary willpower to overcome their addiction. They might have even called them weak or said made some hurtful comments about them. Unfortunately, addiction was once viewed as a measurement of willpower.
Rather than treat it like a disease, people would get kicked out of their homes to rot on the street and have no support from the people they love. The evolution of how addiction is viewed and managed has saved many lives. Although it’s taken decades for addiction to gain recognition as a brain disease, it’s now treated as such. However, a new question many people have now is if addiction is caused by nature or nurture.
Addiction Statistics in the United States
Addiction was also looked at as a criminal condition, but now we treat addicts in an outpatient setting with trained physicians to manage their disease as opposed to throwing them in jail. Although many addicts attribute their prison experience as the necessary rock bottom they had to hit before wanting to get sober, they never had proper resources for them in the past. Now, we’ve increased awareness and the importance of psychosocial therapy in addiction treatment. There are also drug courts and diversion programs that place substance abusers in treatment, which is far less expensive than incarceration.
The recognition of addiction as a disease and the effort we’ve put into destigmatizing addicts and how they perceive themselves has made seeking treatment far more acceptable. However, with the onset of the global pandemic that ravaged our nation, the number of people diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD) skyrocketed.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released data that found 61.2 million people, equating to 21.9 percent of the United States population, used illicit drugs in the past year. A staggering 46.3 million people met the DSM-5 criteria for having a substance use disorder. The data showed that adults between the ages of 18 and 25 had the highest rates of addiction.
A substantial number of people are dealing with addiction. While that’s an unfathomable figure, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also released data highlighting the overdose crisis and the sheer volume of people losing their lives to addiction. For the first time in history, likely due to the pandemic, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses. In 2020, 93,655 people died from drug overdose deaths. In 2021, that number soared to 107,622. Another issue exacerbating the addiction and overdose crisis is mental health – 25 percent of adults had a mental illness in the past year. It begs the question – is addiction caused by nature or nurture?
Nature or Nurture: What Causes Addiction?
Addiction does not discriminate. No matter your background, race, or community you grew up in, we’re all at risk of becoming an addict, especially if it runs in the family. One example would be that most of us can have a glass of wine with dinner and not think about it the next day. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible for others. For some people, that glass of wine could turn into needing several bottles to get through their day. It could be due to a number of issues, such as social anxiety disorder or something else. Unfortunately, some of us cannot manage these cravings.
Another example would be someone prescribed potent narcotic painkillers following surgery. The vast majority of people prescribed medication like Norco after surgery would take it as prescribed and not think about it once the prescription runs out. For others, this one prescription could be what it takes to develop a substance use disorder and cause them to become a full-blown addict.
Those who reach the point of addiction come from different backgrounds and take other roads to get there. Addiction has no single cause that leads a person to develop the condition – many factors are involved. Addiction can stem from both nature and nurture, and there is quite a bit of influence that causes you to get hooked on drugs or alcohol, such as your friends (nurture), home environment (nature), genetics (nature), or psychological predisposition (nature).
A report from the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that someone’s susceptibility to becoming addicted is possibly linked to their genetics. For example, biological information passed down from parents has proven to determine factors such as hair color, skin color, and eye color. These genes link family members together and push their genetics down the line. However, some also increase the odds of addiction and make them more susceptible to the disorder.
There is no gene to blame for addiction when diagnosing a person. When it comes to addiction and nature, there are many genes with the power to influence if someone develops an addiction or not. For example, some people hate the taste of wine, so they’ll be protected from becoming addicted to it. Some are increasingly sensitive to the substance because of the above-average density of their taste buds, enabling them to taste it more and playing a role in the addiction process.
Genetics certainly play a role. Alcoholism can be passed down through many generations – some families have members that are alcoholics. Then they raise children who become alcoholics, but is it solely genetics, or does it have anything to do with being raised around it and not knowing any better?
As people grow up and make their way through life, they’ll develop habits and preferences that could ultimately lead them to addiction. Specific events and surroundings influence the process, which is known as the nurture side of addiction. If you’re the victim of abuse because of an alcoholic spouse, you’ll endure a certain level of trauma that you carry with you. Living in this chaotic and unpredictable violent home can make you feel like you’re constantly in danger. These feelings of concern and fear will carry with you, even if you’ve moved on from that relationship. The symptoms can manifest in various ways, such as self-medicating and turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with how you feel, despite them being what caused the trauma.
Unfortunately, if you have children in the home that witnessed the abuse or now see you drinking, they could end up becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol in the future, even if it doesn’t have to do with their genetic makeup. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol early in life can lead to irreversible damage. Eventually, addiction will take over. When the brain is still developing, it’s incredibly susceptible to the damage caused by drug and alcohol abuse.
Peer pressure is another nurture factor that worsens this problem. Humans are social beings and want to fit in with a group, especially as teenagers. Many of them take drugs to fit in and have fun, not just to escape their problems. Since their brains are developing, they don’t even consider the long-term consequences of substance abuse. When instant gratification and acceptance are readily available, that’ll be their first thought. It’s challenging to resist that, especially when they’re pressured by friends.
It’s not just teenagers who feel peer pressure – often, when adults are at work parties and not drinking, they might be pressured by their peers to have a glass of wine or beer. Again, we want to fit in, and if everyone else is drinking, you don’t want to stand out. What’s even more problematic is that adults that are peer pressured into alcohol are more likely to engage in binge drinking, which presents serious problems. Even if you don’t drink regularly, binge drinking can be deadly.
So, is addiction caused by nature or nurture? The short answer is both. Some of us are predisposed to alcohol or drug abuse, so it’s vital that we avoid experimenting with substances in our younger years. For others, their environment influences substance misuse and abuse, which can be followed by addiction. The safest option is to avoid drinking or using drugs. However, if you become addicted, you must seek professional medical help to prevent a life of misery.