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Drugs and alcohol

What is substance misuse?

”Substance abuse (or misuse) refers to the harmful of hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.” – World Health Organisation 

The four main categories of drugs

  • Stimulants (cocaine, ecstasy etc.)
  • Depressants (Alcohol, cannabis etc.)
  • Opiates (heroin, codeine etc.)
  • Hallucinogens (LSD, magic mushrooms etc.)

Low-risk drinking advice recommended by the NHS

To keep your risk of alcohol-related harm low:

  • men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis
  • if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it’s best to spread this evenly over 3 or more days
  • if you’re trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it’s a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week
  • if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, the safest approach is to not drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum

Regular or frequent drinking means drinking alcohol most days and weeks.

The risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis.

The short term adverse effects of using recreational substances may include:

  • Impaired judgement
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Altered perception of reality

Long term adverse effects of using recreational substances may include:

  • Mental health problems
  • Addiction
  • Social problems
  • Heart and liver disease
  • Cancers
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms

The risk and contraindications of drinking alcohol while taking prescribed medication.

Drinking alcohol while taking prescribed medication, including antidepressants is generally not advised.

Alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of some medications as well as intensifying the possible side effects. Because of this, it is best to avoid drinking alcohol if you’re taking medication such as antidepressants.

Contraindications include:

  • Exacerbate the symptoms of illness
  • Reduce the effectiveness of medication
  • Nausea, vomiting and headaches
  • Drowsiness and dizziness
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Increased risk of accidents

What is self-medicating and how does it affect our mental health?

‘self-medicating’ is when someone uses alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription drugs as a coping mechanism to relieve symptoms of sadness and not being able to cope. Alcohol is one of the most common substances because it is legal in the UK and is easy to obtain.

While self-medicating may provide immediate relief of symptoms such as anxiety, this is only temporary. Alcohol and other drugs can adversely change the chemistry of the brain, which can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. Substance misuse can also lead to addiction and cause serious harm to your physical wellbeing.

When someone has been diagnosed with a mental illness and has an alcohol/drug misuse problem, this is known as dual diagnosis. Substance misuse is more prevalent among people with severe mental health illnesses.

Recreational drugs (including alcohol) can be harmful to your body in many ways. Drugs can affect the way you perceive things around you, your behaviour and your physical and mental health, both in short and long-term.

Helping someone who misuses drugs or alcohol

  • Stay calm and be reassuring
  • Sit them down in a quiet room where they feel comfortable
  • Stay with them and talk to them compassionately
  • Listen to what they say without judgement and make eye contact
  • Try to find out what they are taking (or have taken). The emergency services will need this information if they start to feel seriously unwell
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Be patient with them
  • Once their current condition improves. Assist and signpost to professional support such as their GP, if this is appropriate

If they are under influence, make sure they are safe. If they start to feel physically unwell such as having difficulties breathing or if they are experiencing suicidal emotions, call NHS 111 for advice or 999 in an emergency.

Useful contacts

Alcoholics Anonymous – National network of local alcoholics to help recover from alcoholism 
Phone: 0800 917 7650
Website: https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/#

Drinkaware – Aims to reduce alcohol misuse and harm
Phone: 020 7766 9900
Website: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/

Frank – Offers free confidential drug information and advice 24 hours a day
Phone: 0300 123 6600
Website: https://www.talktofrank.com/

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