1 in 6 unemployed Americans abuses drugs or alcohol

Researchers undecided on causal relationship between substance abuse and unemployment

"Recession" brand wines at a liquor shop in New York.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

About 1 in 6 unemployed Americans suffers from drug or alcohol addiction — nearly twice the rate of substance abuse found in working Americans — according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released Tuesday.

The latest edition of the survey, which analyzed drug, alcohol and tobacco use data from 2012, found that 17 percent of unemployed Americans had a substance abuse disorder, compared with 9 percent of full-time workers. Because the survey relied on self-reports of substance abuse, the actual number might be even higher.

The DSM-IV, the American diagnostic manual for classifying mental disorders, defines substance abuse as a pattern of mood-altering substance use that leads to adverse behavioral changes or social problems — including loss of employment.

Alcohol is by far the most prevalent substance of choice among both employed and unemployed abusers, the survey said, but more than 30 percent of the country's 22.2 million substance abusers use illicit drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol.

Previous studies showed a correlation between substance abuse and unemployment, but social scientists are undecided about the causal relationship: whether people are more likely to become and stay unemployed when they can’t kick an addiction, or if they turn to drugs and alcohol as a result of being unemployed.

A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in July that looked at drug use and unemployment during the U.S. recession between 2008 and 2010 pointed to the latter.

As the U.S. unemployment rate spiked from 5 percent to nearly 10 percent, substance abuse remained fairly constant among the unemployed, economists Alejandro Badel and Brian Greaney found. That wouldn't have been the case if substance abuse were more a cause than an effect of unemployment, given that presumably nonaddicted workers were joining the ranks of the unemployed en masse.

“This causality could be generated, for example, by the urge to appease the financial hardship imposed by unemployment on families, by the increase in spare time that comes with job loss or by increased personal contact with the chronically unemployed,” Badel and Greaney said.

But Ken Leonard, director of the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions, told Al Jazeera that determining causality between the two is complicated. "There are many causes of unemployment other than substance abuse, and many causes of substance abuse other than unemployment," he said.

Leonard noted that, while some research has shown that substance abuse increases in the short term when an individual loses his or her job, the financial constraints imposed by long-term unemployment can make prolonged substance abuse too expensive. In other words, substance abusers might find themselves in need of a job to support their habit.

But there is one survey finding that might catch some off guard: 1 in 11 Americans working a full-time job is classified as a substance abuser. Of the 22.2 million Americans with substance dependence or abuse in 2012, about half — 10.7 million — were employed full time.

And they're not just hitting the bottle either. Overall, about 9 percent of full-time workers and 12 percent of part-time workers use illicit drugs like marijuana and cocaine.

The news, however, isn't all bad. According to the survey, substance dependence and abuse among 12- to 17-year-olds dropped from 8.9 percent in 2002 to 6.1 percent in 2012.

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