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Theories of Addiction

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

America is currently facing a large opioid addiction epidemic, which has led to tens of thousands of deaths by overdose every year. With this in mind, it’s important to look at addiction as a whole in order to understand the psychological aspect of this epidemic. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 19.7 million adults faced substance abuse disorder in 2017, and in that same year 38% of adults were found to be facing issues with addiction to illicit drugs. To put it simply: addiction is far more common than one would imagine. Addiction is a much older issue than most would perceive, prevalent even 200 years ago— The Opium Wars were fought due to an opiate addiction epidemic in China. With this in mind, the origin of addiction must also be considered. While there is no one set answer, psychologists have narrowed it down to a few factors, including genetics, environmental causes, and mental health.

Genetics is one of the most discussed risk factors for addiction, as the field, in general, has become incredibly important since the development of the Human Genome Project. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information: “ individual’s risk [for addiction] tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative.” Genetics influence most aspects of one’s physical being and predisposition to disease Additionally, it’s important to also recognize that the heritability of addiction varies by substance. However, simply looking at genetics to explain addiction is problematic, as it ignores certain confounding variables present in studies regarding addiction - the most important one being the environment. Generally, the heritability of addiction is measured by looking at families with histories of addiction through multiple generations. Yet, this creates an issue, as generally, the subjects of those studies will live in similar environments as their parents, which means that factors in their environment may already be influencing their addiction.

Environmental factors are another commonly discussed risk factor for addiction, especially for those who disagree with the belief that humans come with natural predispositions in terms of personality. While genetics may provide a partial exclamation of addiction, it does not paint a full picture. As previously mentioned, there are often many confounding variables present with research into the heritability of addiction, and as such, it is important to analyze these confounding variables. Oftentimes, individuals who become addicted to certain substances also grew up surrounded by addictive substances. It’s incredibly common for them to have parents or neighbors who are addicted, and this fosters an environment where addiction is incredibly easy to manifest. Access to drugs is high in these communities, and that is a great risk factor for substance abuse disorder. Simply being around those who use addictive substances greatly increases the risks of substance abuse disorder. In addition to the aforementioned environmental factors, a study from Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine concluded that one of the most important environmental factors in determining risk for addiction is the state of the family. Simply put, absent parents produce more children prone to addiction than parents who show involvement in a child’s development. An issue with some of these factors comes in that they don’t take into account the personal situation one may be in, particularly regarding one’s mental health.

Due to the increased focus on mental health in recent years, mental health as a risk factor for addiction has also become more recognized. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those who suffer from substance abuse disorder are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety or mood disorders. Research has shown that mental health disorders often precede substance abuse, and as such, focusing on identifying mental health disorders at a young age is important in lowering rates of substance abuse disorder. Mental health disorders often cause high levels of stress on one’s mind. The pain associated with disorders, such as major depressive disorder, often leads many to use narcotics in order to cope. Other circumstances can involve anxiety disorders and a lack of available treatments. Many will turn to drugs as a method of coping for such disorders, as prescription medication may be financially unviable. Whatever the reason may be, mental health disorders often create a risk for substance abuse disorder. However, an issue occurs with this analysis of addiction. Many times it is difficult to analyze whether addiction is influenced by mental health, or if mental health is influenced by addiction. The sustained abuse of certain drugs may cause one to develop a mental illness. Thus, it can be difficult to look at addiction in this way, as the origin is difficult to pinpoint. While general knowledge can be found, it isn’t always the case that mental health disorders lead to addiction.

Like many subjects in psychology, there is no one correct answer as to what influences addiction. A great pool of research exists linking addiction to genetics. Since addiction is a disease, it seems natural to attribute it to genetics, however, this fails to represent many factors in addiction. In some cases, the environment one is around can lead to addiction. This risk factor conflicts with genetics and creates issues with looking at both of these. Mental health may also be a risk factor, however it is similarly difficult to pinpoint whether or not it actually causes substance abuse. Regardless, addiction is a threat to countless people, and treatment and prevention must become a priority for our society’s general health and wellness.

Sources Cited

Bevilacqua, L., & Goldman, D. (2009, April). Genes and addictions. Clinical pharmacology and therapeutics. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

Edited by Editorial StaffLast Updated: June 28, 2021. (2021, June 28). Addiction statistics: Drug & substance abuse statistics. American Addiction Centers. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, February 16). Mental health effects. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

Environmental risk factors for developing an addiction. Vertava Health. (2019, October 31). Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). Part 1: The connection between Substance Use Disorders and mental illness. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

Clay, S. W. (2010, March 1). Risk factors for addiction. ScienceDirect. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from

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