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Multigeneration Addiction: The Vicious Cycle of Alcohol and Drug Misuse Within Families

by Abby Wilmer

May 2021

While alcohol consumption is often viewed as a social norm, use of illegal drugs is universally unaccepted. In 2019, Ramsey County participants voiced their concerns through a rural health needs assessment, stating that the biggest challenge facing the community is drug and alcohol misuse.

Again, two standards exist for alcohol and drug use. For alcohol, there is a fuzzy line between how much alcohol consumption is socially acceptable versus consumption considered misuse. For illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine, or meth for short, the line is sharp: any amount of these substances is unacceptable. The impact of meth on the health and behavior of North Dakota adults is clear. Short-term consequences include hyperactivity, aggressiveness, confusion, and paranoia. Long-term use leads to increased risk for stroke, organ failure, and death from heart or other problems. But should this question be asked: Is the use of drugs, like meth and opioids, now following that same social construct as alcohol with their routine use becoming acceptable?

Years ago, meth in North Dakota was produced and distributed by 'Ma and Pa' meth labs. Now meth comes across our country's borders, is distributed in mass quantities, and is increasingly more available, more potent, and less expensive. According to the North Dakota Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1% of adolescents aged 17 and younger used meth in 2011. Fast forward to 2015, and that number increased to 7%. North Dakota experts say this number has continued to rise. These experts also note illegal drugs are used not just by school-age kids, but their parents and their grandparents.

Researchers emphasize the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to this multigenerational problem. Harvard scientists found children of substance abusers have an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves. A 2018 study revealed that genetic tendencies account for 50% of the risk for drug and alcohol dependence.

Environmental factors also influence substance misuse behaviors. When children see their parents using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, children are more likely to use the same coping mechanism. With these findings, researchers and healthcare providers sound the alarm concerning the vicious cycle that becomes multigenerational substance misuse.

How can the vicious cycle of multigenerational addiction be stopped? First, it's important to understand that parents — and even grandparents — are often the "gateway" to drug use. National and local campaigns for drug prevention are worthless when children are being exposed to drugs at home and within their family circles. A next step is breaking the vicious cycle? Providing substance misuse treatment programs to North Dakota adults, so they can become good role models for future generations.

This article also appeared in the May 26, 2021 issue of the Devils Lake Journal.

About the Author

Abby WilmerAbby Wilmer is a third-year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. She was selected as the Devils Lake participant for the school's ROME program, or Rural Opportunities in Medical Education. Because the program includes teaching student doctors about the importance of rural newspapers in delivering health information, she has written this column for her ROME community. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.