In discussing substance dependence, most individuals focus on the use of only one substance at a time. On the other hand, some individuals do not have a drug of choice and will use any substance in order to achieve intoxication.  The diagnosable term for the indiscriminate use is polysubstance dependence, sometimes more commonly and inappropriately called polysubstance abuse.  The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) labels polysubstance dependence as a disorder that requires physical dependence pertaining to the use of substances. 

The criterion for polysubstance dependence requires the individual to use at least three different classifications of drugs (cannabis, inhalants, stimulants, ect.) within a 12-month period.  Individuals can also use more than one drug at a time.  During this period they cannot use one drug more than another, in essence, there cannot be a drug of choice.  Also, the individual cannot be diagnosed with dependence on a single drug, the individual is considered to be dependent on a group of drugs (APA, 2000; Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2010).


Symptoms of polysubstance dependence disorder include:

  • tolerance to drug(s) (takes increased amounts of drugs to obtain the euphoric state),
  • withdrawal symptoms when stopping drug usage (shakes, vomiting, headaches, etc.),
  • loss of control pertaining to use (individual uses more drugs or use for longer periods of time than previously planned),
  • failure to stop using drugs,
  • harm to self,
  • increased amounts of time spent obtaining drugs,
  • and interference of routine activities. 

The causes of polysubstance abuse are unknown; however, it is suspected to be due to the need to obtain the initial high associated with the first encounter.  The individual will likely move on to harder and different drugs until the effect wears off which leads to polysubstance dependence (APA, 2000; Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2010).

Young adults are more prone to be users of multiple drugs.  Males tend to be diagnosed more than females with substance dependencies (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2010).  Polysubstance dependence can be life threatening due to the usage of multiple drugs and the combined effects within the body; the most common problems while using are heart attack, stroke, overdose and death.  Research indicates that clinical treatment programs can be used to prevent polysubstance dependence in young adults and can be implemented within communities (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2010).  Cognitive behavioral treatment programs are a popular choice to treat addiction and have indicated positive results.

Tips if you think some one you know has polysubstance issues:

  • Seek help from trained mental health professional. A trained professional that has experience with addiction would likely be beneficial and provide you with needed support. In addition, they will likely be familiar with completing an assessment to assist with identifying other appropriate mental health related issues.
  • Consult with a medical provider, the usage of multiple substances can be dangerous and can have adverse effects on the body and mind.
  • Cognitive-behavioral programs often work best when treating addiction. As stated above these programs have shown to have beneficial results.