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Mental Health Now factsheet: alcohol and drugs

What is problematic alcohol or substance use?

When alcohol or other drugs are being used at levels that are causing either short term or long term harm, this is known as substance misuse. It is not only about how much a person drinks or uses drugs but how it affects their lives and that of those around them. Alcohol is the biggest risk factor for all early deaths among 15-49 year olds. 20 people per day in the UK die as a direct result of their drinking. 

Substance misuse is more common in men than women. Often people use alcohol or other drugs to relieve unpleasant feelings so often the individual may be using alcohol or substances to cope with other mental health difficulties. However, using alcohol and substances can make mental health or other problems worse. 

Substance use is also a risk factor for suicide. 

Common symptoms

  • Harmful use causes physical or mental damage. 
  • A person may be ‘dependent’ on substances if they have a strong desire or sense of compulsion to take the substance, 
  • Narrowing of the drinking repertoire eg only consuming a specific drink every night
  • Have difficulties controlling their substance-taking behaviour
  • Experience a physiological withdrawal when not taking substances
  • Increased alcohol or substance tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms after not drinking for a short period such as insomnia, tremors, mood swings, or withdrawal symptoms from substances. 

Treatment and recovery

For someone who wants to change their alcohol use, encouraging low risk drinking may be appropriate. For example, be aware of the number of standard drinks they consume, drink water while drinking to avoid dehydration, avoid keeping up with friends drink for drink, spend time in activities that don’t involve drinking. Abstinence from alcohol or substance use may be a more appropriate approach for others. 

Delays with getting help for alcohol and drugs can cause problems with family and employment, damage physical health and increase risk of developing other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, so the earlier the help the better. 

Research shows that the majority of dependent drinkers recover, that heavy drinkers can make new choices, and that the social and cultural environment in which people drink can and does change. Change is possible for individuals, and it is possible for society*. 

Supporting people with problematic alcohol use in the workplace

The best approach to reducing harmful drinking or substance use will be tailored to the individual; it is not one-size-fits-all. Help the person by providing knowledge and information about problems associated with drinking and substance misuse to help them make positive choices. This may be through appropriate websites, GP, an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme), or support groups. Help them gain motivation and confidence to change and control their drinking and substance use. Use positive language and avoid criticism Drink trackers may be useful to help monitor alcohol use and are available to download for free or as apps.

Where to find out more