Friday, June 3, 2022

CMO Message: Substance Abuse

Drug addiction, or substance use disorder in medical language, is often considered a disease. With this notion comes an enormous amount of stigma, shame, and isolation which makes seeking care extremely difficult. Individuals who regularly abuse substances may be in denial and family and friends may be uncomfortable confronting their loved ones. In fact, only 1 out of 10 people with substance use disorder receive any treatment at all. When left untreated, addiction can lead to interpersonal conflict, disability, suicidality, and life-threatening accidents and medical emergencies.

Instead of approaching addiction as a disease, it may be more effective to view it as a symptom.

Through this lens, substance use disorder is no longer a character flaw or sign of weakness. It is no longer something that defines a person but rather the culmination of a multitude of complex risk factors including genetics, family and social environment, childhood adversity, and underlying mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder. Understanding and addressing these root causes of substance use disorder is imperative to getting people comprehensive care, preventing relapse, and supporting communities to prevent drug use amongst youth.

Further, while diseases are usually binary - you either have the condition or you don’t - symptoms are more often gradual in nature. A small hangnail might initially just feel like a mild sting but becomes more red, painful, and filled with pus over days. At that point, you have an infection and may need a medical intervention to drain the abscess. Drug addiction doesn’t develop overnight but typically over years. The “hangnail” could be as simple as drinking an extra glass of wine to cope with the pandemic or taking an extra dose of an opioid painkiller because it makes you feel good. While not everyone who engages in these behaviors develops an addiction where they are unable to stop despite negative consequences, being aware of these habits and getting support early on could prevent needing a more serious intervention later.

We need to change the dialogue around unhealthy substance use so that more people get the care they need. Substance use disorder is not just an individual issue, but a societal one. A preventative approach, early support, and greater appreciation of the social and environmental factors that lead to drug use can help us reduce the burden of addiction in our communities.


  1. What are the risk factors for developing a substance use disorder?
    Family history of addiction, mental health issues, peer pressure, lack of family support, childhood adversity, and earlier age of first drug use all increase risk of developing an addiction.
  2. What are some signs of substance use disorder?
    Inability to stop using a substance (legal or illegal) despite negative consequences such as strained interpersonal relationships or difficulty fulfilling responsibilities, risky behavior as a result of drug use, increasing use of the substance, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms could indicate substance use disorder.
  3. What are signs of unhealthy drug use that I should watch out for in friends and family members?
    Decreased performance or attendance at work or school, changes in behavior including more secretive behavior, worsening mental health, and financial troubles could indicate unhealthy drug use.
  4. Where can I get support if I’m concerned about my substance use habits?
    It is never too early to seek care from your healthcare provider and UnitedAg has a variety of resources available. Please call UnitedAg’s Health & Wellness centers or Member Services and we will get you the support that you need.


  • Rosemary Ku, MD/MBA/MPA