Substance misuse

Learn how substances such as alcohol and other drugs can be misused and the harmful impact they can have on your health and wellbeing.

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Understanding substance misuse

Substances refer to alcohol and other drugs (illegal or not), as well as other things we might not think of as drugs at all (like petrol or glue) that change how we feel, think or act. Substances include:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco & nicotine, including in cigarettes as well as in vapes
  • Prescription drugs, such as oxycodone and benzodiazepines
  • Illegal drugs, such as weed/marijuana, cocaine, ecstacy/MDMA, ice/meth, ketamine and heroin
  • Petrol, glue, synthetic drugs and other chemicals.

People use substances for a range of different reasons, including to relax, to socialise with friends/colleagues and to enhance experiences like a night out. For many Australians, celebrating with a drink is as normal as a morning coffee.

What is substance misuse?

Substance misuse can look different for everyone.

It’s usually not about how much of a substance you’re using, but about how your usage is impacting you and the people around you.

Substance misuse can look like any of the below signs. You might be:

  • Harming yourself, or the people around you
  • Affecting your physical health
  • Finding it difficult to meet responsibilities
  • Withdrawing from activities that you used to enjoy
  • Taking part in more dangerous or risky activities, like drink driving, unprotected sex, or using dirty needles
  • Fighting or arguing with your partner, family or friends about your use
  • Needing more substances to experience the same effects
  • Experiencing cravings or urges when not using the substance
  • Having difficulty reducing or stopping your use
  • Experiencing signs of depression, anxiety, paranoia or psychosis.
Smoking cannabis helped me to cope with the pain in my life and cope with PTSD.

In many cases, people use substances to dull emotional or physical pain, or to get away from problems or difficulties in life.

This is a totally normal desire, but while it can make us feel better in the short-term, this coping mechanism can have serious long-term consequences on our health and wellbeing.

Substance misuse might also be referred to as ‘substance abuse’, ‘substance disorder’, or as a kind of addiction.

How common is substance misuse?

Because substances such as alcohol and medication are a normal part of life for many of us, it can be difficult to know when substance use becomes misuse (i.e. when use becomes a problem). Therefore it’s hard to know exactly how common substance misuse is.

What we do know is:

  • 1 in 6 Australians drink at risky levels
  • 10% of Australians smoke daily
  • Around 1 in 6 Australians have used illegal drugs in the past 12 months.

As mentioned above, it’s natural to want to stop the physical or emotional pain we’re experiencing, or to want to escape difficult problems or situations in life.

Having suffered from anxiety and depression for many years, drinking helped me to relax and cope with stress.

Turning to substances like alcohol, smoking and drugs is often easy and can make us feel better in the short term, but often leads to harmful effects in the long term, and ends up adding to our pain or challenges.

Download our substance misuse factsheet.

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