Social vulnerabilities for substance use: Stressors, socially toxic environments, and discrimination and racism

Neuropharmacology. 2021 May 1;188:108518. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2021.108518. Epub 2021 Mar 11.


Applying a social determinants of health framework, this review brings attention to evidence from social sciences and neuroscience on the role of selected social factors in individual and population-level vulnerability to substance use and substance use disorders (SUDs). The understanding that social vulnerability to substance use and SUDs is multifaceted and occurs across different levels of influence (individual, interpersonal, community, and societal) is underscored. We propose that socially based stressors play a critical role in creating vulnerability to substance use and SUDs, and as such, deserve greater empirical attention to further understand how they "get under the skin." Current knowledge from social sciences and neuroscience on the relationships among vulnerability to substance use resulting from stressors, exposure to socially toxic childhood environments, and racism and discrimination are summarized and discussed, as are implications for future research, practice, and policy. Specifically, we propose using a top-down approach to the examination of known, yet often unexplored, relationships between vulnerability to substance use and SUDs, related inequities, and potential differential effects across demographic groups. Finally, research gaps and promising areas of research, practice, and policy focused on ameliorating social vulnerabilities associated with substance use and SUDs across the lifespan are presented. This article is part of the special issue on 'Vulnerabilities to Substance Abuse'.

Keywords: Discrimination; Racism; Social vulnerabilities; Socially toxic environments; Stressors; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Humans
  • Racism*
  • Social Environment*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Substance-Related Disorders*