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Substance misuse

The term ‘drug and substance misuse’ covers the huge range of substances people take to make themselves feel better. Substances range from illegal substances, to over-the-counter medicines and household substances, such as glue. All these substances give the person using them some sort of positive outcome – feeling ‘high’ or a reduction in physical or emotional pain. These effects don’t last long. To achieve the same effect, more and more of the substance needs to be taken each time. 

Dependence on a substance is said to be present if you fail to go without the substance for a significant amount of time, for example, a day, and can’t stop thinking about taking it. If you suddenly stop, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, e.g. headaches, shaking, and nausea.

Effects of drugs and substance use

You may experience a number of physical effects from taking substances and you can find out more about these on the websites listed below.

Many substances can seriously damage your health, however, it is sometimes the practices associated with taking a drug that makes them particularly dangerous. For example, people who inject drugs risk infections associated with sharing needles.

There are a number of negative outcomes that may result from substance misuse including: financial difficulties; job loss; break up of family relationships; loss of friends; homelessness; and depression/anxiety due to social isolation.

Why people use drugs or other substances

People take substances for the following reasons: for fun – to enjoy feeling ‘high’; to relax; for curiosity; to relieve physical pain or help with medical problems; to numb emotional pain; to deal with symptoms of mental health, e.g. depression, anxiety, psychosis (e.g. hearing voices); to forget about problems; or because of peer-pressure. All of these reasons could potentially result in a person becoming dependent on a substance.

There is a theory called the ‘gateway theory’ that suggests experimenting with easily assessible drugs – leads to the use of more dangerous drugs. However, this theory is strongly debated.

Dealing with drugs and substance use 

Seek professional help: It is important to seek professional help as drugs can have a big impact on your health. You can visit your GP or a voluntary organisation or a specific service who can offer help no matter how serious your problem. If you feel you might be dependent on a particular substance, it is vital to seek advice about how best to stop taking it. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking a substance as your body will be used to it. You will probably experience withdrawal symptoms which can be more damaging to your health than continuing to take the substance and reducing your intake gradually.

Talk to friends or family: Many people, hide their substance use from their partner, family or friends due to shame and fear of their reaction. However, if you feel things are out of control it is important to speak to someone. It can be difficult to admit you have a problem, but doing just that can be the start of you feeling less isolated. Once a friend or family members knows there is a problem, they can support you through the difficult process of stopping. People may respond negatively, but this is usually them feeling guilty for not noticing the problem or fear of not knowing what to do to help. If you have nobody to talk to, you can call a free and confidential helpline (see below).

Further information about drugs and substance use

Useful websites

Call one of the special helplines: Talk to Frank – 0800 77 66 00, Know the Score – 0800 587 587 9

Further reading

Read our free booklet 'When Habits Become Out Of Control - A Guide To Managing Unhelpful Habits' (pdf)

Feel free to contact us to ask about psychological therapies available at First Psychology Online that may help support you or someone you know who has substance related issues.

Practitioners who work with drug and substance addiction: