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Why Prescription Drugs are the Leading Cause of Addiction

  1. Overuse of Prescription Medications
  2. Mental Illness
  3. Poor Medication Management
  4. Chemical Dependence
  5. Sources

Prescription Drug Facts

If you think prescription drug abuse is harmless, think again.

These drugs are the leading cause of drug-related overdoses, killing 44 people each day, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's more than all other drug classes (minus alcohol) combined.

Prescription Drug Facts

On television and movies, drug addiction is the product of a shadowy underworld, nestled away from mainstream society. Whether you're a parent hoping to help your child avoid drug use, a health care provider, or the loved one of an addict, you probably see addiction as the domain of criminals. With good choices and a little luck, the thinking goes, the perils of street drugs—and the crime that so often accompanies their use—can be avoided.

Don't get too comfortable. Because the biggest addiction danger isn't in a crime-ridden neighborhood across town or in the meth lab you've always quickly driven past. It's in your medicine cabinet, purse, or kitchen.

  • Prescription drugs are the leading cause of drug addiction, with more than 15 million Americans suffering from a prescription drug addiction at any given time.
  • And while most parents think of marijuana as a gateway drug, kids are more likely to find their way to heroin and other street drugs through prescription medications.

So what is behind this phenomenon, which the CDC has called an epidemic? . As with most social issues, a number of interlinked factors help explain the crisis.

Overuse of Prescription Medications

Prescription medications can be lifesaving when used correctly, but research consistently suggests that doctors are prescribing potentially addictive drugs at needlessly high rates. The FDA has asked doctors to be conservative in their use of potentially addictive drugs such as benzodiazepines.

Yet doctors write 44 million prescriptions for Xanax, just one benzodiazepine, each year.

Doctors prescribe other potentially addictive drugs at similarly high rates. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, in 2010, doctors prescribed enough painkillers to medicate every adult American every four hours for a full month.

Some patients continue using these drugs longer than is absolutely necessary, while others receive prescriptions when a less addictive drug would be a better option.

If you use prescription drugs to manage a medical condition, talk to your doctor about what you can do to reduce your risk of becoming chemically dependent. If your prescription drug use has spiralled out of control, a comprehensive program can help you manage both the drug abuse and underlying condition the drug was prescribed for. Please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? now to speak with a treatment support staff member.

Mental Illness

People with mental illnesses such as depression are at least twice as likely to become addicted to prescription drugs. People with schizophrenia are especially vulnerable.

  • A 2009 study found that as many as half of people living with schizophrenia have had an addiction.

Some turn to addiction to cope with the pain of untreated mental illness.

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For instance, a depressed person might begin abusing opiates to numb the pain. But others become addicted to the very drugs prescribed to treat their condition.

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Some anti-anxiety drugs are highly addictive, and sleeping pills often spur problems with misuse.

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When a person is already struggling with his or her daily life, as many people with mental illness do, addiction becomes much more likely.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental illness each year, leaving a large swath of the population vulnerable to addiction. 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental illness each year, leaving a large swath of the population vulnerable to addiction.

  • NAMI points out that mental illness is a risk factor for numerous other issues, including homelessness, abuse, and unemployment.
  • These complicating factors can make treatment of addiction more difficult.

Both addiction and mental illness interact with one another, creating challenging circumstances that make treatment difficult. For this reason, dual diagnosis treatment—and not just treatment that only addresses one side of the issue—is vital for recovery.

Poor Medication Management

Though some prescription drug addicts buy or steal drugs from friends and family, others have valid medical prescriptions.


Doctors who don't appropriately manage their patients' medications exacerbate the problem of drug addiction in the following ways:

  • By prescribing potentially addictive drugs when less addictive options are available.
  • By giving patients prescriptions that span multiple months, removing the need to check back in with the doctor.
  • By not adequately screening patients for addiction history and risk factors.

The American Medical Association has also expressed concern about the role that direct-to-consumer advertising plays in prescription drug misuse. The organization argues that these advertisements encourage drug-seeking behavior, and can encourage interest in and compound access to potentially addictive drugs.

Patients also play a role in this phenomenon.

  • Some begin doubling or tripling the dosage of their medication without first talking to a doctor.
  • Others may engage in “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions for the same addictive drugs.
  • The CDC argues that more aggressive medication management can help combat this issue, highlighting the need for doctors to consistently monitor their patients' medication use.

Addiction, mental illness and outside factors interact with one another, creating challenging circumstances that make treatment difficult. For this reason, dual diagnosis treatment—and not just treatment that only addresses one side of the issue—is vital for recovery. Please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? to find a comprehensive program today.

Chemical Dependence

Chemical dependence is a biological process that steadily evolves as the body grows accustomed to, and then dependent on, mind-altering substances.

  • Chemical dependence doesn't discriminate and doesn't care whether you have a prescription.
  • With prolonged use, particularly at high doses and especially if your use is not medically necessary, addiction becomes more inevitable

Everyone's timetable to dependence is different, but some risk factors increase your likelihood of quickly getting hooked on prescription drugs. The Mayo Clinic advises that some of these risk factors include:

  • A previous history of addiction.
  • A family history of mental illness.
  • Mental illness, whether treated or not.

  • Stressful life circumstances. 
  • A history of abuse or trauma.
  • Social isolation. 


AMA calls for ban on direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Fox, M. (2014, February 11). Prescription drugs could be gateway to heroin, officials say. Retrieved from

Mental health by the numbers. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Prescription drug abuse statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Prescription drug overdose. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Popping pills: Prescription drug abuse in America. (2014, January 02). Retrieved from

Risk factors. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Volkow, N. D. (2009). Substance use disorders in schizophrenia--Clinical implications of comorbidity. Retrieved from

Xanax information. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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