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What Is Substance Use Disorder?

Nancy MacGregor MA, ATR-BC, LPC, ACS, Clinical Director

You may have heard or read the term, but wondered what is substance use disorder? Quite simply, substance use disorder is the preferred term professionals use when referring to drug or alcohol abuse or addiction. Substance use disorder is a more precise way to refer to the challenges individuals face when they find themselves dependent or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Addiction is a disease. It changes an individual’s brain chemistry leaving them dependent on the particular substance. Often, to return to health, someone experiencing substance use disorder needs professional help to achieve long-term recovery. Like any disease, an individual is more likely to heal with proper therapy and the right resources. At Harmony Bay Wellness, patients will find what they need to overcome addiction.

Rest assured, the trusted experts at Harmony Bay have the answers. Learn more about intensive outpatient programs near Voorhees, NJ, and in greater South Jersey. We have the answers to the questions you’re asking. All you have to do to get them is reach out. 


Recognizing substance use disorder can be difficult. Fortunately, there are clear criteria that can be applied no matter what substance is being abused. Typically, if an individual is taking the substance in larger and larger amounts, more and more frequently, or for a longer duration than intended, they are experiencing dependency. When dependent upon a substance, even if an individual wants to cut down or stop using, they are unable. Often, this is due to the withdrawal symptoms arising from quitting. The physical as well as mental discomfort or pain from these withdrawal symptoms, usually prompt individuals to keep using so they avoid them. Specific symptoms will vary from drug to drug. But generally speaking, withdrawal can be acute and lead to physical complications, which is why detoxing needs to be done under medical supervision.

Most health and medical professionals use the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as DSM, to diagnose mental conditions. The DSM uses substance use disorder as a combination of substance abuse and substance dependence. Therefore, substance use disorder is the medical term for drug addiction. 

Substance use disorder is a medical condition that affects brain function. It leads you to be unable to control your substance use. The good news, however, is that with the right therapy program, you can understand substance use disorder. Then, if necessary, you can identify the markers and get on the road to recovery. 

Medical professionals generally classify substance use disorder as either mild, moderate, or severe. This classification depends on how many criteria you meet. You should understand that you should seek therapy, even if you only have a mild substance use disorder. The longer you use the substance, the more intense your addiction will become. It is much easier to treat a mild form than it is in a severe form. Some diagnoses of substance use disorder and mental health overlap with depression and require specialized therapy beyond normal visits to depression therapy in South Jersey

Other signs you or a loved one is experiencing substance use disorder include:

  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from drug or alcohol use
  • Non-stop cravings
  • An inability to focus on work, school, or family responsibilities
  • Awareness of substance use is having negative effects on personal relationships
  • Abandoning or avoiding activities because one can’t use during them

So, whether an individual is abusing drugs or alcohol, if they exhibit one or more of these signs, it’s likely they are suffering from a substance use disorder.


There are 11 criteria used in determining how severe your substance use disorder is. They are as follows: 

  1. Social or interpersonal problems due to using: Has your substance use lead to relationship problems?
  2. Withdrawal: When you stop using the substance, do you experience withdrawal symptoms?
  3. Hazardous use: Have you used the substance in dangerous ways to yourself or others? 
  4. Neglected responsibilities: Have you failed to meet your obligations at work, school, or home due to substance use? 
  5. Tolerance: Have you built up a tolerance to the substance, so you need to use more to get the same effect? 
  6. Unable to quit: Have you tried and failed to cut back or stop using the substance? 
  7. Used longer amounts longer: Do you use more of the substance or used the substance for more prolonged periods? 
  8. Physical or psychological problems due to using: Has your use led to physical or mental issues, such as liver damage or depression?
  9. Time spent using: Do you spend a lot of your time using the substance? 
  10. Cravings: Do you have cravings for the substance?
  11. Activities are given up: Do you skip doing your hobbies to use the substance? 

If you answered yes to 2 or 3 of the criteria, you might have a mild substance use disorder. A person who meets 4-5 of the measures has a moderate substance use disorder. However, a person who meets six or more has a severe substance use disorder.


Once individuals realize what is substance use disorder and decide to seek therapy, there are several options open to them. Some patients need very strict and structured care to be able to overcome their addiction. However, others may need less supervision but the same quality of care.

An intensive outpatient program (IOP) is an excellent option for patients who aren’t able to commit to the standard residential, 30-day minimum inpatient treatment. Often, individuals aren’t able to leave their work, school, or family responsibilities for such a long period. However, they are aware they have a problem and want to get better. In an IOP, patients come to the treatment center either in the evenings or during the day, depending on their schedule, to receive the support they need. They then return home or to their sober living facility. This allows patients to continue to meet their obligations while taking responsibility for their addiction. In an intensive outpatient setting, patients get the same quality of care as they would in any other treatment program, but it is condensed. However, patients, counselors, and therapists all still work together to design the most effective therapy for the individual.=


Harmony Bay Wellness knows how to explain what is substance use disorder and properly treat it. Because we understand every addiction and recovery is different, we design our therapy programs to address the unique needs of each patient. Similarly, we offer a variety of therapies, so patients have as many chances for success as possible. For instance, some of our therapies include:

If you’re ready to overcome your substance use disorder or if you want to get your loved one into therapy, Harmony Bay is here to help people in Voorhees, NJ, and the greater South Jersey area. So contact us at [Direct] to explore more of what we offer. Start your healing today.

Treatment with Harmony Bay

Harmony Bay is an outpatient behavioral health service that offers primary mental health treatment for a variety of mental health disorders. Our mission is to make mental health care convenient and affordable while providing an unmatched experience to our clients. contact us today by calling 855.765.6399.