Change, grow, live - formerly CRI

Understanding addiction

What is addiction?

People who have an addiction have to use, take or do something compulsively, even though it may be harmful to them.  An estimated two million people in the UK suffer from an addiction, which includes addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling.

An addiction to alcohol or drugs is defined by a number of physical and behavioural changes, which usually include:

  • A strong desire to take a drug or drink alcohol
  • Difficulty controlling its use
  • Continuing to drink or take drugs despite harmful consequences e.g. ill health or a breakdown in relationships.

How many people in the UK have an addiction to drugs or alcohol?

There is no exact figure for the number of people who suffer from an addiction. Figures from 2013/2014[1] show that around one-third of adults had taken drugs during their lifetime, and drinking alcohol is a widespread practice in the UK, with over nine million people in England drinking more than the recommended daily limits[2].  In 2013, 193,198 people over the age of 18 were seeking support from specialist services for their alcohol or drug use.[3]

Why do people develop addictions to alcohol or drugs?

There are many reasons why someone might start using drugs or drinking to excess, but often there is a deeper or more complex issue that needs to be addressed and supported. Sometimes if that issue isn’t addressed, people struggle to maintain control over their alcohol or drug use because they haven’t resolved the underlying trigger.

Some reasons for addiction include:

  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood and in later life.
  • Struggling with mental ill health or a learning difficulty which may or may not have been diagnosed.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and low self-worth brought on by a range of social and economic pressures such as poverty, bankruptcy, redundancy, loss of a home, a marriage breakdown or loneliness.
  • A traumatic episode such as the death of a loved one or receiving a diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness.
  • Witnessing misuse in the family home, amongst peers or role models.
  • Family breakdowns or conflict in childhood.
  • Spending time in care or having many carers as a child.
  • People struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity.
  • People who have experienced discrimination such as homophobia or racism.
  • People who have experienced trauma, such as ex-service men and women.
  • Prolonged use that spirals out of control

Is there a genetic link for why someone might have an addiction?

Studies into this area have shown that both genetic and environmental factors are linked to addiction, with areas of considerable overlap between the two. For example, research into addiction in adolescence has highlighted four key areas which may increase the risk of a young person developing a problem with drugs or alcohol, either in their teenage years or in later life.

  • Parental drug or alcohol misuse, or misuse by an older family member such as sibling
  • Family conflict or a lack of cohesion or supervision
  • A history of mental ill health in the family
  • Friends or peers who misuse alcohol or drugs

Despite there being many factors associated with adolescent drug use, early life experiences, family relationships and parental attitudes are the most important in determining the likelihood of a young person misusing drugs or alcohol. There are also studies indicating that environmental factors have the most impact at an earlier age whilst genetic factors are more prevalent at later ages. Please note this is an area of continuing research and as such the conclusions detailed here may be subject to revision.


[1] British Crime Survey

[2] Alcohol Concern:



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