General Health

Drugs and Alcohol: How to Know if You Need Help


Zoe Miller, BSc, MD, MBChB
May 19, 2024
Take-home points
  • Men are more likely than women to suffer issues with substance misuse.
  • Drug and alcohol misuse can negatively affect your physical and mental health, as well as your relationships, work, and finances.
  • Help is available – you just need to ask for it.

Back ground on substance misuse

Men are more likely to have issues with drugs and alcohol, making up 67% of people with substance misuse problems.1 But it’s difficult to know when your drug use has become a problem.

What starts as a bit of fun or a way to de-stress can quickly develop into an addiction affecting your relationships, finances, and health.

Let’s talk about the worrying signs of addiction, the impact addiction has on your health, how to seek help, and some of the resources available.

Understanding drug and alcohol abuse

Lots of different drugs can lead to a problem – everything from alcohol to prescription drugs to cannabis to heroin. Dependence doesn’t always mean physical dependence either, where you experience physical symptoms when stopping. You can also experience what we call psychological dependence, where you can’t get through the day or function without drugs or alcohol.

There are different stages of substance use, from experimentation to dependency. To start with, experimenting with drugs at the weekends may be fun, until you’re reliant on the substance to have a good time, and then to get through the day at all.

If you started taking a medication for pain relief, you may notice you’re needing more and more to feel the same effect. If you’re late with a dose, you may notice yourself getting stressed, shaky, or angry.

You may not even notice you have developed a problem. Your friends and loved ones may have mentioned they’re worried about your behaviour or health.

When you’re in a routine and you’ve not reached rock bottom, it can be hard to realise that you have a problem with substance misuse. But it’s important to consider your own health, both physical and mentally.

Impact of alcohol and drug addiction on mental health

Drugs and alcohol are mind-altering substance. They affect how you see and interact with the world around you. Many people take drugs for this exact reason – as a way to escape the world and relax.

But drugs can also affect your mind in a negative way, even after they wear off. While some men turn to alcohol when they’re feeling low, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol long-term can lead to depression.2

Cannabis is another way many men like to relax. While some men enjoy cannabis without any problems, it can increase your risk of mental illness, especially psychosis and schizophrenia. One study found that cannabis use is linked to around 50% of people with psychosis.3

Other drugs are also linked to mental health problems. Stimulants like cocaine and ecstasy can make you feel more anxious, as can hallucinogens like magic mushrooms.4,5

But what about the impact of drugs and alcohol on the body?

Long-term effects of substance abuse

In the long-term, drug use can increase your risk of a variety of health conditions, including strokes, heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, and cancer. Generally, the longer you are taking a drug for, the higher the risk.6

Injecting drugs like heroin comes with added consequences. There’s a chance of infection, both at the injection site and in the blood, which can lead to sepsis, heart infections, and even brain infections. You’re also at high risk of viruses transmitted in the blood if you share needles – this means things like hepatitis and HIV.

Drugs affect your body and mental health, but they also affect your self-esteem, relationships, and finances. Loved ones may find it hard to trust you, they may not like your behaviour when you’re drinking or taking drugs, or sometimes they might even feel scared. This can permanently affect the relationship if nothing changes.

Your friends and family can be really helpful in identifying you have a problem with alcohol and drugs. Often, they can recognise the signs when you’re not able to.

Recognising the signs of alcohol and drug addiction

Recreational drug or alcohol use doesn’t always mean addiction. Some people manage to enjoy these substances without experiencing any negative effects.

But it’s likely you have a problem with your alcohol use if:7

  • You need to drink first thing in the morning.
  • Your drinking is associated with negative feelings or feeling guilty.
  • Other people have commented on you drinking too much.
  • Drinking is interfering with your normal life and you’re unable to do what’s expected of you.

When it comes to other substances, some of the things that suggest addiction or problematic drug use include:

  • Neglecting your responsibilities (whether that’s studies, work, or home life).
  • Getting into trouble with the law.
  • Changes in sleep schedule, appetite, and personal hygiene.
  • Mood swings, anger, and irritability.
  • Increasing levels of anxiety or paranoia.

While you’re in the situation, you might not recognise these signs. But friends and family may have raised them with you. Or maybe you have noticed that the situation has become problematic. It’s time to ask for help.

Seeking help for alcohol and drug addiction

The first step is accepting you have a problem. Once you’ve done this, knowing what to do next can be overwhelming.

Reach out to loved ones – it’s likely they’ll want to help support you through this difficult time. However, it’s important that you recognise the issue, and that you are willing to work on it.

The first place to seek help is your GP. They’ll be able to signpost you to the services that are available in your area. If you’re not comfortable talking to your GP, you can research drug and alcohol services in your area online.

Private rehabilitation programmes are also an option, but these can be expensive and aren’t always offered on the NHS. There are also charities out there who are able to help.

Most countries around the world have dedicated substance misuse services available to support you. Reach out to a health professional for help.

Treatment programmes vary, but all require you to have a certain level of self-motivation. Simply put, you need to want to help yourself. Talking therapies, self-help groups, medication, and detox are some of the most commonly used treatment strategies.  

Dealing with substance misuse can be really tough. You don’t have to do it alone.

  1. GOV.UK. Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2021 to 2022: report.
  2. Keyes KM, et al. Academic Press; 2019;148:1–38.
  3. Shrivastava A et al. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 2014;56(1):8–16.
  4. FRANK. Magic mushrooms.
  5. FRANK. Cocaine.
  6. Fox TP et al. ISRN Addiction 2013;2013:1-6.
  7. NHS. Overview - Alcohol misuse; 2018.

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