People smoke, use drugs and drink alcohol for lots of different reasons. Whatever your reason, misusing tobacco, drugs or alcohol may have a short, medium and long-term impact on your mental health. Some potential long-term effects can include:
Needing to take more to get the same effect.
Feeling like you must use the drug or alcohol (dependence).
Withdrawal symptoms including feeling sick, cold, sweaty or shaky when you don’t take them.
Having sudden mood changes.
Having a negative outlook on life.
Loss of motivation.
Doing less well at work, school, college or university.
Problems with relationships.
Borrowing or stealing money from friends and family.
Please be aware that this list is not exhaustive. Taking any substances can be dangerous. They can also have bad interactions with any medications or other substances you might use.
In this section we take a look at some of the different substances that can have an impact on your mental health. We also identify ways in which you can get information, advice, help and support.
Alcohol is a downer substance, a depressant. The impact of alcohol on the brain is similar to that of an anaesthetic - the more alcohol we take the more of our brain it shuts down. As a result, we gradually lose control of our behaviour.
Guidelines from the UK’s chief Medical Officer advise that adults are safest not to regularly drink more than 14 units per week, in order to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level. If adults do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over 3 days or more. If you want to cut down the amount you’re drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.
What is an alcohol unit?
One alcohol unit is measured as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. This equals:
Units in some alcoholic drinks
It is important to emphasise that whilst there is no completely safe level of drinking, by sticking within recommended guidelines, people can lower the risks of harming their health.
Alcohol – the effect on a night out
Just enough alcohol can make us feel sociable. If you drink sensibly, you should be able to avoid any nasty consequence, in both the short and the long term.
If you drink to excess, your personal safety may be at risk. You’ll have a hangover the next day, and may not even remember what you got up to. Way too much alcohol in a single session could put you in a coma or even kill you.
After one or two drinks (1-3 units):
We become more talkative and our heart rate speeds up a little, giving us an ‘up’ feeling. This is the effect that people refer to when they say alcohol makes them feel more sociable.
After a couple more drinks (4-6 units):
We feel light headed and our co-ordination and reaction times become impaired. Our ability to make decisions is also slowed down. All of these effects are caused by alcohol acting on nerve cells all around the body and making them work more slowly. Driving will be illegal (and dangerous) and operating machinery would be a bad idea.
Another few drinks (7-9 units):
Most people will show definite outward signs of alcohol’s effects. Reaction times are much slower, vision becomes blurry and speech is slurred. Drinking more than eight units at a time seriously overloads the liver. If we take care of ourselves in the days to come, it should repair itself but for tomorrow a hangover is pretty much guaranteed.
Drinking more than 10 units:
Most people will be staggering about the place. Accidents are commonplace – as are fights caused by bumping into people who’re easily upset by such things. This amount of alcohol will be affecting cells all over the body. In an effort to rid itself of the toxin, the body tries to pass the alcohol out mixed with water in our urine. This is why alcohol makes us go to the loo a lot and is the cause of the dehydration that gives us morning-after headaches. Alcohol also attacks the gut, causing stomach upsets, heartburn, sickness and diarrhoea.
Drinking more than 30 units:
That’s about twelve pints of strong lager. It is enough to knock most people out. From there, it’s a short step to heart failure and breathing slowing to a stop. Even when people are already unconscious, alcohol in the stomach can continue to be absorbed and can reach lethal levels. People can also be sick and suffocate on their vomit.
Help, information and support:
Alcohol Focus Scotland
Alcohol Focus Scotland is the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol harm in Scotland. They offer a wide range of information and facts on alcohol at the Alcohol Focus Scotland website: http://www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk/alcohol-information/
The Alcohol Focus Scotland website also includes links to local alcohol support services across Scotland: http://www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk/alcohol-information/find-an-alcohol-service/
Drinkaware is an independent charity working to reduce alcohol misuse and harm in the UK. Their aim is to help people make better choices about drinking. Find out more at the Drinkaware website: www.drinkaware.co.uk
SMOKING AND TOBACCO
Every day in Scotland, 36 young people start smoking. That’s more than 13,000 young people each year. The tobacco industry needs, indeed relies upon, these young people taking up smoking because they need to replace the customers that they lose. Every year in Scotland there are over 10,000 smoking related deaths and 128,000 hospital admissions that are directly related to conditions caused by smoking. That’s 2,500 people a week, 350 people a day 15 people an hour.
Those 36 young people who take up smoking each day in Scotland enter into a contract with nicotine, a substance that is as addictive as heroin and cocaine. A pack a day habit will:
Young adults (aged 16 – 24) are most at risk of taking up smoking. Whether they are looking for stress relief, something to do or just to fit in with a group, the majority of those that start smoking go on to say that they regret it and wish that they had never started.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Staying smoke-free, or quitting smoking, has major benefits for physical health, mental health and financial wellbeing.
The incredibly addictive nature of nicotine means that someone who smokes has to deal with cravings, feelings of stress and irritability that keep coming back.
Being smoke-free is good for fitness and focus. Physical activity triggers the release of the body’s feel-good hormone, dopamine, which increases the feeling of wellbeing as well as reducing stress and anxiety. For those who are quitting smoking, dopamine released through physical activity actually helps to reduce cravings and improves concentration.
Although it may feel relaxing, smoking actually increases stress on the body and the brain. In surveys people who smoke report being less happy than those who do not – and people who stop smoking report that they feel happier afterwards.
Buying a pack a day costs £60 a week, or £250 a month. There are always other things to spend money on or things to save for like driving lessons, nights out or holidays with friends, getting to college or setting up in a place of your own.
Help, information and support:
ASH Scotland is the national charity working to prevent and reduce tobacco related harm in Scotland. They offer a wide range of information and facts on smoking and tobacco at the ASH Scotland website:
ASH Scotland’s #befreeachievemore campaign explores key messages to help young adults identify with being fitter, happier, better off and achieving more by being smoke-free.
Whilst we know that there are clear physical health, mental health and financial benefits from stopping smoking, making a successful quit attempt can feel like a difficult thing to for many people. NHS Inform provides information, help and support to help you quit in way that works best for you
Different people take different drugs for different reasons. Some people want to experiment and are curious about what drugs are like, whilst others use drugs to escape social or personal issues. Some people try drugs because their friends are using them and they don’t want to be left out.
When some people take drugs they might experience a short-lived period of feeling happier, more energetic, more relaxed, more empathetic (in tune with others), or have altered perceptions. It can be very tempting to try and re-live these experiences and this might lead people to continue to take drugs.
Drugs can also cause a whole range of immediate health problems, such as feeling poorly, anxious, paranoid, sedated or even leaving people unconscious and at risk of death from a drug overdose.
Longer-term, becoming dependent or addicted is a major risk of many drugs. Regular use of drugs can also lead to a host of longer-term health problems that affect different organs.
Affect on the brain
Different drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) act on different areas of the brain and alter the brain’s chemical balance. It’s these changes that cause the feelings and sensations people get when they take drugs.
The effect of drugs varies from substance to substance and it is not possible to say exactly how a particular drug will affect someone. Drugs can be more harmful for young people because their bodies and brains are still developing.
The same drug can also have very different effects at different times, depending on its purity (which can vary a lot) and the person’s mood, health, circumstances and surroundings.
Some drugs are more addictive than others and some people get addicted more easily. Some drugs can trigger underlying mental health problems and make existing ones worse.
In a general sense, different types of drugs are grouped by their main effects and fall into three main categories: stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens.
Some examples of these are:
Increase energy, activity, heart rate, blood pressure
Alcohol; Heroin; Tranquilizers (Valium)
Slow down reactions, heart rate, breathing
Cannabis; LSD; Magic Mushrooms
Cause hallucinations (see, hear and feel things differently).
While some argue that those who experiment with drugs might come to no long-term harm, some drugs, like heroin are highly addictive, dangerous, and can occasionally cause very serious physical reactions, including drug overdose.
In the meantime, more and more new drugs are appearing, as well as new ways of taking older ones. Because they haven’t been around for long, less is known about how new drugs, and new ways of taking older ones, affect people. Some have turned out to be more dangerous than first thought.
It’s also very dangerous to take several drugs at once. Many people who have died from a drugs overdose did so because they had taken a combination of drugs, often combined with alcohol.
Drugs and the law
If you’re caught with them, you risk getting a criminal record, a fine or you could go to prison. Having a drugs conviction can make it difficult to get a job and could mean losing a job you already have. Some countries won’t issue visas for travel to people with criminal records.
This is where you get caught with drugs that you’re going to use yourself. A report will be sent to the Procurator Fiscal to decide whether to prosecute you or not. Depending on the Class of drug you’re caught with and individual circumstances, you may get up to 7 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both.
You don’t have to be a big-time drug dealer to be charged with supply-related offences. If you’re caught with drugs and it looks like you’ve bought them to sell, or give to your friends, you could be charged with ‘possession with intent to supply’ or ‘supplying drugs’. Either offence can mean up to life imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both.
The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) lists all illegal (or controlled) drugs in the UK and divides them into one of three ‘classes’ – A, B and C – loosely based on the harm they cause to individuals and society.
Help, information and support:
Whilst the range of drugs is extremely broad and diverse, the key underlying bond is that all drugs affect the brain. Rather than provide a description of drugs and substances, several organisations and websites provide excellent and in-depth information on drug effects, risks associated with them and support available.
Know the Score
Whether you’ve taken drugs, are thinking of taking them, or are just curious and want to know more, it’s important to know the real facts about drugs. Find out more at the Know the Score website:
For free, confidential information and advice you can call the Know the Score Drugs Helpline between 8am and 11pm on 0800 587 587 9. Know the Score also provide advice on what to do if you’re worried about someone, what to do in an emergency and highlight links to local sources of drug abuse help and support:
Talk to Frank
Talk to Frank is a national drug education service Talk to Frank aims to reduce the use of both legal and illegal drugs by educating young adults about the potential effects of drugs: