Substance Abuse vs. Addiction

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Concerned family members at a intervention

Substance abuse and addiction are serious issues poised to wreak havoc on individuals and their loved ones. Because of this, it is easy to confuse the two terms, if not outright assume they’re interchangeable. It is imperative that those interested in a counseling career have a deep understanding of the differences in substance abuse vs. addiction so they can create and administer the best treatment plans possible.

Defining Substance Abuse and Addiction

The best way to differentiate substance abuse from addiction is to understand what the terms represent. Substance abuse is defined by either the use of illicit substances or the misuse of medication. This abuse can appear to be casual in certain settings. Addiction, on the other hand, is defined by using substances that have an impact on the brain’s reward center that’s so strong, it alters brain functionality. Because of this impact, addiction is considered to be a disease.

The respective definitions highlight the fundamental difference between substance abuse and addiction. The American Psychiatric Association has published criteria that identify additional differences. Substance abuse is measured in metrics that impact a person’s livelihood, including an inability to curtail usage. Addiction criteria comprise both those metrics and various mental or psychological factors, such as family history, support systems, and the age when the abuse started. While substance abuse is not addiction, it can lay the foundation for progression into addiction.

Addiction Statistics

There is a major substance abuse and addiction crisis in the United States. A 2015 national survey showed 20.8 million people ages 12 and over had a substance abuse disorder, and roughly 2.1 million U.S. adults reported symptoms associated with opioid use disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 5,000 people died from alcohol or substance use poisoning in 2016 and it was a contributing factor in more than 90,000 deaths..

Substance Abuse and Addiction Development

The path to substance abuse can seem innocuous. People may try a substance out of curiosity or societal peer pressure. They may eventually develop a habit because it makes them feel better, enhances performance, or simply makes them feel good. A lot of the characteristics that may develop from this habit over time, such as an ongoing lack of self-control, are found in addiction, which can sometimes make the transition from substance abuse to addiction tough to initially spot.

When addiction is fully fleshed out, however, its impact hits hard. People who experience addiction may find being under the influence of a controlled substance is the only way they feel they can function, and they will do whatever they can to maintain this feeling.

The Ramifications of Substance Abuse and Addiction

When considering substance abuse vs addiction, neither one is better than the other. Substance abuse can have horrendous consequences on a person. From a physical standpoint, for example, substance abuse entails risks of infectious diseases, organ damage, and even death through overdose. The adverse effects of substance abuse are not confined to long-term scenarios, either. A night of casual drinking could lead to getting behind the wheel after “one drink too many,” which may lead to tragic results that affect multiple people.

Addiction not only carries the consequences found in substance abuse situations; it also can bring about circumstances that endanger a person’s livelihood. Persons struggling with addiction often chase their addictions at the expense of their education, employment, health and family relationships, as well as their status as law-abiding citizens. These major losses won’t be enough for addicts to change their ways. As a result, they could end up homeless, jobless and without a family to turn to before they eventually die.

The Importance of Counselors

The role of the counselor is critical in therapy for both substance abuse and addiction. Counselors can help users and those suffering from addiction step away from drugs by applying therapeutic methods to examine the situations that caused them to initially turn to drugs. Following this discovery, counselors can help them build life-coping strategies that aim to remove drugs from the picture.

Although each addiction scenario is different, addiction counselors must possess certain core competencies, such as excellent listening skills and a compassionate demeanor. These competencies can help the counselor lay a solid foundation of trust with their client, which is essential for a successful patient outcome.

A Major Difference

Comparing substance abuse vs. addiction is really comparing two different components of an ongoing epidemic. However, counselors can play a major role in helping people recover from the perils of addiction. By compassionately deploying therapeutic methods to develop life-coping strategies, they can help prevent these people in need from becoming an unfortunate statistic. Ultimately, they can create a profoundly positive impact not only on the patient but also on the patient’s family and friends.

Learn More

Students who are interested in helping others, who have a strong commitment to relationships and who are dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives are often drawn to working with those who suffer from substance use disorders. If working with addiction recovery patients sounds like a rewarding career, consider Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling degree with a specialization in clinical mental health. The online courses offer students rigorous academic courses from nationally-recognized thought leaders in the field.

Recommended Reading

The Role of the Counselor in Addiction Recovery
Using Technology to Treat Addiction
Contemporary Issues in Clinical Mental Health


Addiction Center, “Statistics on Addiction in America”
Promises Treatment Center, “Alcohol Abuse Treatment”
Bradford Health Services, “Understanding the Difference Between Abuse and Addiction”
Ashwood Recovery at Northpoint, “Four Differences: Substance Abuse vs. Addiction”
Wake Forest University, “Online Master of Counseling Curriculum”
WebMD, “Counseling and Addiction”
Dual Diagnosis, “Difference Between Abuse and Addiction”
National Institute of Drug Abuse, How Science Has Revolutionized the Understanding of Drug Addiction
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “What is drug addiction?”