The Swiss Cheese Model of Addiction

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Head-shot of a woman.

Why doesn’t everyone who is exposed to drugs become addicted?

You can’t get addicted just from using a drug once. But some people who try drugs go on to take more and more, and become addicted as a result. Others don’t.

Scientists now know drug addiction is a disease and that there are lots of things that can contribute to your risk for getting that disease—what are called risk factors. These include your genes, what kind of neighborhood you live in, what kind of school you attend, and what kinds of people you hang around with. These same factors can also protect you from getting the disease.

But even though we know this about addiction, some people still want to blame it on the person’s willpower or morals, saying addiction is a lifestyle choice that reflects a flaw in the person’s character.

Our video team at the National Institute on Drug Abuse created a video explaining why some people get addicted and some don’t, using an easy-to-understand idea: The factors that put you at risk for drug addiction, and the factors that protect you, combine to make a barrier with bigger or smaller holes in it—like Swiss cheese.

Check it out!—and let us know what you think in comments.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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