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Occasionally individuals and organizations that help drug users and addicts claim that addicts stop maturing when they become addicted to drugs:

Well, drugs and alcohol hinder a person’s brain function, especially that which controls critical thinking and reasoning skills. If a person;s [sic] mind is not capable of these things, they can not get a feel for life’s situations, gaining perspective, learning from mistakes and forming that wisdom gained from such things to use later on in life. Instead, they simply repeat the same mistakes, over and over in life, gaining little to nothing at all.

Addictions seem to stop a person from maturing. All they are left with is birthday after birthday, the physical signs of age, and limited knowledge or wisdom of that which is real life. It’s a sad thing to watch or even think about. Say a person’s addiction starts in their late teens to early 20s. By the time they are in their 40s, having abused drugs and alcohol for some many years, they still have the mental thought processes of the person they were 20 years before.

While this claim is generally made in reference to teenage drug abuse, it is often applied to addicts of any age, as shown above.

Is there any evidence support this claim? What criteria are used to decide when a person "stops maturing"?

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A sort of a meta-answer, since no real answers arrived. Possibly there has been research on this, I wouldn't know. But I've heard the same from acquaintances that has had children that became drug addicts as well from people involved in helping the homeless. I suspect it's not a scientific thesis, but based on the experience of these people. But it makes sense. You mature because you deal with your problems. Drugs is a way to feel good instead of dealing with your problems. Why would you grow up and mature when you can get high? –  Lennart Regebro Apr 4 '11 at 18:32
    
Maybe the right answer then, is that you might stop maturing when you use drugs to escape from your problems instead of dealing with them, regardless of whether you are addicted or not. Plenty of people are addicted to drugs who still have lives - many tobacco and caffeine users for instance. –  rmx Apr 12 '11 at 15:30
    
I'd love to write up a proper answer here. Don't have time. I work with opioid addicts. One thing that's becoming apparent now, esp. since methadone maintenance programs have been running for a long time, is that men on long-term opioids feminize. There are distinct endocrine effects which lower testosterone levels and lead to a higher risk of osteoporosis, etc.. It's called opioid-induced androgen deficiency. So these men are often given testosterone supplements now. If you start a morphine career as a young man, you may not stop maturing, but your maturation may be into a woman. –  user2466 Jun 21 '11 at 23:36

1 Answer 1

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I'm not positive on the definitive answer -- this may be very difficult to extract a causal relationship from in terms of the available literature.

From what I have found, many suggest that those who use drugs in the first place already have some difficulties/pre-dispositions to such usage. For example:

  • Fergusson/Horwood, "Early onset cannabis use and psychosocial adjustment in young adults," 1997 (LINK):

First, those electing to use cannabis were a high risk population characterized by social disadvantage, childhood adversity, early onset behavioural difficulties and adverse peer affiliations. Secondly, early onset cannabis use was associated with subsequent affiliations with delinquent and substance using peers, moving away from home and dropping out of education with these factors in turn, being associated with increased psychosocial risk.

  • Newcomb/Bentler, "Impact of adolescent drug use and social support on problems of young adults," 1988 (LINK):

We obtained data from 654 teenagers when they were in early and late adolescence and used it to evaluate resultant problems reported by this same group of youngsters when they were young adults. General, or polydrug, use increased drug and alcohol, health, and family problems... Alcohol use, which was not reflected in General Drug Use, had no specific negative effects, but it reduced loneliness in romantic relationships, self-derogation, and family problems.

General social support during adolescence provided a significant amelioration of all seven young-adult problem areas.

  • Newcomb/Bentler, "Consequences of adolescent drug use: Impact on the lives of young adults (Book)," 1988 (LINK and Table of Contents):

Using its unique data base of 654 young adults who have been followed since early adolescences, the book assesses the effects of adolescent drug use on young adult family formation and stability, deviant behavior, sexual behavior and involvement, educational pursuits, livelihood pursuits, mental health, and social integration.

  • Trinidad/Johnson, "The association between emotional intelligence and early adolescent tobacco and alcohol use," 2000 (LINK):

A study was conducted to explore the relationship between emotional intelligence (EI) and adolescent tobacco and alcohol use (TAU). Subjects were 205 multi-ethnic adolescents (52% male) from middle schools in southern California (mean AGE=12.63 years), 153 from a public school and 52 from a parochial school. An abbreviated version of the Multifactor Emotional Intelligence Scale... was used to assess the EI of the students. EI was negatively correlated with a general, overall measure of tobacco and alcohol use, and with individual tobacco and alcohol scales and items.

What does all of this amount to? I'm not quite sure, but I'd at least put forward the following as potential hypotheses:

  • At least two of the studies have shown that those who began to use already had some family, psychological issues, and lack of social support. This might be a case of hindsight bias, in which development issues that were unnoticed prior to drug usage are now explained away as "common sense" once drug usage escalates.
  • The study showing that social support alleviated some of the negatives typically brought about by drug use may shed some light on the source of issues/immaturity. Perhaps one's peer group and their influences matter more than consumed substances.
  • The work by Newcomb/Bentler, particularly the book, might be fantastic follow-up material. They appear to have gauged the effects of younger-aged drug use on later life endeavors. While not particularly evaluating emotional growth during usage, this book might shed light on whether post-usage individuals displayed significant differences from peers that had not previously used.

I did find a study indicating that drug use may affect age-critical neurological development:

  • Crews, et al., "Adolescent cortical development: A critical period of vulnerability for addiction," 2006 (See LINK):

Frontal cortical development is later in adolescence and likely contributes to refinement of reasoning, goal and priority setting, impulse control and evaluating long and short term rewards. Adolescent humans have high levels of binge drinking and experimentation with other drugs. This review presents findings supporting adolescence as a critical period of cortical development important for establishing life long adult characteristics that are disrupted by alcohol and drug use.

So, these folks at least make the case that drug use may negatively affect a critical period in brain development and lead to negative outcomes. Toward the bottom of that article, they put forward this graphic:

Map of drug use effects on development

You can read the report at your leisure, but this model appears to suggest that heavy consumption disrupts development such that one stabilizes at a lower level than one who never experienced disrupted growth. Thus, this might support the idea that one stagnates for some time during addiction, or at least slows.

I'll conclude there -- I wish I had been able to find something more definitive. I may revise the answer if I get time to look into this from another angle which occurred to me: one could examine what contributes to increased maturity and see if drugs are used as an alternative or "escape" from such mechanisms, events. For example, perhaps the death of a loved one, dealt with among friends and families and long hard times of thought would bring about some quotient of maturity, while simply using drugs to "escape" would not be as beneficial. This is speculation at present, but it's another route to trying to answer this.

Lastly, it may be that addicts simply display less maturity and thus simply appear to have stunted their growth. From WIKI:

Addiction can also be viewed as a continued involvement with a substance or activity despite the negative consequences associated with it.

Thus, in the end, it may be tautological that an addicted person appears to not be maturing, since maturity is generally seen as shaping behaviors toward positive goals, avoiding detrimental consequences, appropriate action, etc. Addiction, by the definition, implies an immaturity of choice.

Hopefully I haven't clouded the waters too much.

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My own research leads me to a similar conclusion as your bullet points #1/#2: people who are predisposed to seek "escape" from their problems and have no strong social/family support to turn to will find anything to help them do that, and it will impede their normal young-adult psychological growth. I've seen similar claims about heavy internet or video game use and I suspect the underlying causes are identical. –  Michael Edenfield Nov 9 '12 at 20:14

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