MWV Supports 

Helping our community advocate for those struggling with Substance Use Disorder

Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
Substance use disorder is the persistent use of drugs (including alcohol) despite substantial harm and adverse consequences. Substance use disorders are characterized by an array of mental/emotional, physical, and behavioral problems such as chronic guilt; an inability to reduce or stop consuming the substance(s) despite repeated attempts; driving while intoxicated; and physiological withdrawal symptoms.  Drug classes that are involved in SUD include: alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; phencyclidine and other hallucinogens, such as arylcyclohexylamines; inhalants; opioids; sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytics; stimulants; tobacco; and other or unknown substances.  The severity of substance use disorders can vary widely; in the DSM-5 diagnosis of a SUD, the severity of an individual's SUD is qualified as mild, moderate, or severe on the basis of how many of the 11 diagnostic criteria are met. The International Classification of Diseases 11th revision (ICD-11) divides substance use disorders into two categories: (1) harmful pattern of substance use; and (2) substance dependence. 
There are many known risk factors associated with an increased chance of developing a substance use disorder. Children born to parents with SUDs have roughly a two-fold increased risk in developing a SUD compared to children born to parents without any SUDs. Taking highly addictive drugs, and those who develop SUDs in their teens are more likely to have continued symptoms into adulthood. Other common risk factors are being male, being under 25, having other mental health problems, and lack of familial support and supervision. Psychological risk factors include high impulsivity, sensation seeking, neuroticism and openness to experience in combination with low conscientiousness. 

Individuals whose drug or alcohol use cause significant impairment or distress may have a substance use disorder (SUD). Diagnosis usually involves an in-depth examination, typically by psychiatrist, psychologist, or drug and alcohol counselor. The most commonly used guidelines are published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).There are 11 diagnostic criteria which can be broadly categorized into issues arising from substance use related to loss of control, strain to one's interpersonal life, hazardous use, and pharmacologic effects.

DSM-5 guidelines for the diagnosis of a substance use disorder require that the individual have significant impairment or distress from their pattern of drug use, and at least two of the symptoms listed below in a given year: 

  1. Using more of a substance than planned, or using a substance for a longer interval than desired
  2. Inability to cut down despite desire to do so
  3. Spending substantial amount of the day obtaining, using, or recovering from substance use
  4. Cravings or intense urges to use
  5. Repeated usage causes or contributes to an inability to meet important social, or professional obligations
  6. Persistent usage despite user's knowledge that it is causing frequent problems at work, school, or home
  7. Giving up or cutting back on important social, professional, or leisure activities because of use
  8. Using in physically hazardous situations, or usage causing physical or mental harm
  9. Persistent use despite the user's awareness that the substance is causing or at least worsening a physical or mental problem
  10. Tolerance: needing to use increasing amounts of a substance to obtain its desired effects
  11. Withdrawal: characteristic group of physical effects or symptoms that emerge as amount of substance in the body decreases

There are additional qualifiers and exceptions outlined in the DSM. For instance, if an individual is taking opiates as prescribed, they may experience physiologic effects of tolerance and withdrawal, but this would not cause an individual to meet criteria for a SUD without additional symptoms also being present. A physician trained to evaluate and treat substance use disorders will take these nuances into account during a diagnostic evaluation.


Substance use disorders can range widely in severity, and there are numerous methods to monitor and qualify the severity of an individual's SUD. The DSM-5 includes specifiers for severity of a SUD. Individuals who meet only 2 or 3 criteria are often deemed to have mild SUD. Substance users who meet 4 or 5 criteria may have their SUD described as moderate, and persons meeting 6 or more criteria as severe. In the DSM-5, the term drug addiction is synonymous with severe substance use disorder The quantity of criteria met offer a rough gauge on the severity of illness, but licensed professionals will also take into account a more holistic view when assessing severity which includes specific consequences and behavioral patterns related to an individual's substance use. They will also typically follow frequency of use over time, and assess for substance-specific consequences, such as the occurrence of blackouts, or arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, when evaluating someone for an alcohol use disorder. There are additional qualifiers for stages of remission that are based on the amount of time an individual with a diagnosis of a SUD has not met any of the 11 criteria except craving. Some medical systems refer to an Addiction Severity Index to assess the severity of problems related to substance use. The index assesses potential problems in seven categories: medical, employment/support, alcohol, other drug use, legal, family/social, and psychiatric.

Rates of substance use disorders vary by nation and by substance, but the overall prevalence is high. On a global level, men are affected at a much higher rate than women. Younger individuals are also more likely to be affected than older adults.