Youth and Philanthropy Initiative


A man hangs his head in stress and holds his forehead. He is surrounded by empty glasses and pills

What is it?

The word “addiction” is often used to refer to any behaviour that is out of control in some way. The key to determining whether a behaviour is an addiction is if the substance is used despite harmful consequences (i.e. financial difficulties, issues at work or with family, conflict with the law). One simple way of describing addiction is the presence of the 4 Cs:
  • Craving
  • Loss of control of amount or frequency of use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Use despite consequences


No single factor can predict if a person will become addicted to drugs. A combination of factors influences risk for addiction. The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that taking drugs can lead to addiction.

  • Biology. The genes that people are born with account for about half of a person’s risk for addiction. Sex, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.
  • Environment. A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as stress, peer pressure, poverty, lack of emotional connectedness, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, racism, feelings of isolation, trauma, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.
  • Development. Genetic and environmental factors interact with critical developmental stages in a person’s life to affect addiction risk. Although taking drugs at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to addiction.

Talking About Substance Use

Some of the language used to talk about substance use and addiction can be sensitive, in large part because the use of drugs and alcohol is something that is looked down upon. Not everyone will use the word “addiction” or describe themselves as an “addict”, and that’s their choice to make. Someone might prefer to describe themselves as a “heroin user” for example, or simply say they have a “drug habit” or a “drinking problem”; as a rule of thumb, it’s most respectful to match the ways that people talk about themselves.

Approaches to Treatment

In the same way that not everyone uses the same words for their experience, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all way to help those who want to stop or reduce their use of drugs or alcohol. A range of different types of services and philosophies exist to assist individuals in the way that is right for them.

Learn More

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