Substance Abuse Awareness Day takes place on 26 June. In our country, there are many people dealing with the effects of substance abuse on a daily basis, with many people struggling to cope as it is. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), some people living with mental illness or suffering from a previous trauma might find themselves turning to substances in a misguided attempt to treat the symptoms of their illness or reduce the side effects of their prescribed medication. The associated additional stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic might well have made this situation a lot worse for many.
A tragically common pair
Unfortunately, disability and addiction are a tragically common pair. Persons with disabilities are substantially more likely to suffer from substance use disorders than the general population, and they are also less likely to receive treatment for them. Conversely, persons with addictions are more likely to become disabled, either through accidental injury or through long-term side effects of substance abuse.
According to Addiction Center in the United States, people with physical disabilities experience substance use disorders at 2 to 4 times the rate of the general population. A disability and lack of support can easily discourage someone’s happiness and sense of purpose in life, creating depressing states. Co-occurring disorders, like depression, anxiety, and unhealed trauma, are especially common among the disabled population, leading many to seek a false sense of comfort with harmful substances.
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities battle unique stressors, such as social perspectives of seeing them as outsiders, an inability to qualify for certain careers, access to certain benefits, and an inability to participate in a number of activities to the extent they would like. Individuals with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed; disabled adults 25 and older are less likely to have completed high school and more likely to live in poverty. They are more likely to be victims of violent crimes and suffer health conditions like obesity and smoking. All of these factors contribute to high rates of substance use seen in the disabled community.
Disability and addiction statistics globally and in SA
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.1% of adults have difficulties physically functioning, while 39.5 million adults struggle with physical disabilities. Individuals with disabilities often develop substance use disorders to offset emotional and mental disorders, anxiety, low moods, and physical pain accompanying physical disabilities.
In the United States, 54 million people experience some form of a disability, of which roughly 9% (a total of 4.7 million adults) have both a substance use disorder and a co-existing disability.
The Disability and Health Journal, a scientific journal to advance knowledge in disability and health, states that in South Africa, substance abuse is a grave and pervasive social problem associated with severe personal and social costs that affect persons with disabilities disproportionally. Research has shown a prevalence of overall substance abuse at a significantly higher level amongst people with disabilities.
Those suffering with intellectual disabilities in particular suffer from staggering rates of addiction. 7%-26% of individuals with intellectual disabilities in the United States have addiction-related issues, depending on the exact condition. These rates are heavily influenced by the effects of some mental conditions combined with the frustrations of dealing with them and the need to cope.
Pain medication addiction and the disabled
Patients with disabilities often use prescription medications to battle painful conditions, many of which have high potential for addiction. Prescription opioids in particular are effective pain relievers yet are highly addictive and can easily be abused. People with disabilities are more likely to abuse opioids, but less likely to get the treatment they deserve.
Once a disabled individual develops an addiction to prescription opioids, they may end up switching over to cheaper and more readily available drugs such as heroin when their prescription runs out. This risk is heightened among the disabled, who are often under greater mobility and financial restrictions than the general population.
Disability alcohol addiction
The number of individuals with physical disabilities and alcoholism remain high globally. The combination of emotional and physical frustrations can greatly contribute to lowered moods and a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol. Studies found that up to 50% of individuals with spinal injuries, orthopaedic injuries, and traumatic brain injuries indulged in heavy drinking. The ease with which alcohol can be legally obtained greatly contributes to this problem.
Where to turn
For help or information about a treatment centre please contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group on 011 234 4837 or go to http://www.sadag.org/ or call the Substance Abuse Helpline on 0800 12 13 14 which offers free telephonic counselling, referrals and support. The Helpline is available 7 days a week nationwide.