Understanding Polysubstance Abuse

We often think of addiction in singular terms, assuming a cocaine addict always gets high on cocaine or a heroin addict only uses heroin. While people may have certain drugs they prefer, many addicts abuse a number of drugs, often seeking out whatever is cheapest and most easily accessible.

In some cases, they may build a tolerance to a drug, the drug may stop relieving depression or other negative emotions, or they may become bored with the drug’s effects.

What Is Polysubstance Dependence?


Wellness Resource Center can help treat polysubstance abuse

Polysubstance dependence, also called polydrug or multidrug abuse, is a substance disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the manual used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders.

Individuals suffering with polysubstance dependence use at least three different classes of addictive substances over a 12-month period, without forming a preference for any single drug that qualifies for dependence on its own.

For example, an individual may use cocaine, depressants and hallucinogens indiscriminately without any one drug being their drug of choice. Although the person may not meet the criteria for dependence on any of these drugs individually, they may meet the criteria for substance dependence when all three drugs are considered collectively.

According to the DSM-IV, individuals must have three or more of the following symptoms in order to meet the criteria for substance dependence:

  • Tolerance (needing to use increasingly larger amounts of the drugs to get the same effect)
  • Withdrawal (experiencing withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing use of the drugs)
  • Loss of Control (using more drugs than planned, or using drugs longer or more often than planned)
  • Inability to Stop Using (unsuccessfully attempting to stop using drugs)
  • Time (spending a significant amount of time obtaining or using drugs)
  • Interference with Activities (giving up previously enjoyed activities to use drugs)
  • Harm to Self (continuing to use drugs despite the fact that they cause physical or psychological harm)

Some people use multiple drugs simultaneously to create a more intense high, or because they prefer different drugs at different times or in different situations (for example, using stimulants at parties and sedatives in the evening). Others use multiple substances to counteract the effects of another drug, such as taking depressants to come down after using stimulants. There are also situations where an individual is addicted to one drug and then becomes addicted to prescription painkillers after getting into an accident or undergoing surgery.

Polydrug abuse is often associated with other mental health disorders such as depression and personality disorders. In these cases, people often abuse drugs as a way to self-medicate their underlying psychiatric disorder. Drug abuse may begin with alcohol or marijuana and then escalate to include other addictive drugs.
Studies show that multidrug abuse is the norm among teens and young adults. Typical combinations include marijuana, alcohol and heroin, as well as mixtures of ecstasy, over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications and inhalants.

Multidrug Abuse Addiction Treatment

Multidrug abuse makes recovery more complicated. Because the symptoms of polysubstance abuse are usually the same as the signs of other drug abuse, the first step is a thorough assessment that uncovers all forms of drug abuse.

Some drug rehab programs specialize in treating multidrug abuse. Wellness Resource Center in Florida is an addiction treatment program that works with adults who struggle with chronic relapse, polydrug abuse and dual disorders.

Treatment begins with a thorough assessment of each patient’s drug use, treatment history, family dynamics, and medical and legal history. The multidisciplinary team of clinical professionals then creates an individualized treatment plan geared toward the specific needs and goals of the patient.

Through education, life skills training and intensive therapy, Wellness Resource Center helps patients with polysubstance dependence develop coping strategies and life skills that will help them end their addiction to all addictive substances and more effectively manage any mental health disorders.

Addiction is a complex disease that comes in many forms. Individuals who abuse multiple drugs may face a number of challenges on the road to recovery, but with specialized treatment, there is hope for a satisfying and drug-free future.

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