Human beings have been ingesting substances to alter their mood and perception since ancient times. In many ways, things are much the same today. Usage of drugs in Australia is widespread, with 16 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 (3.1 million people) said to have used illegal drugs in the last 12 months1.
Even so, most people who try an illicit drug are not considered addicts. The most common drugs in Australia on which people are dependent are legally available: nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.
Drugs and addiction
The chemicals found in all drugs — legal or otherwise — can be harmful if consumed to excess, be it a single dose or long-term. The harm can be compounded because so many drugs can become part of a dependency (i.e. addiction).
The problem with addiction is that it can exert an extremely powerful hold on people. Most people who are addicted to drugs know that their behaviour is harmful to them, yet they are unable to stop.
A smoker knows that they may get lung cancer or heart disease, yet they are unable to quit. A methamphetamine user knows that their habit is expensive, leads to extreme come-downs, and could even get them arrested, and yet they cannot control it. An alcoholic knows that their drinking does not improve their problems and may lead them to pass out, yet they drink more.
In order to understand the problem of drug addiction, it is important to first understand why people consume drugs.
Why do people take drugs?
Most people who try a drug do so because they are doing precisely that: they are trying it. Trying a drug does not necessarily lead to dependency, and yet it is still necessary to try a drug in order to get hooked.
There is a vast amount of academic and legal information on substance abuse: why people try, consume and get addicted to drugs. Here are some of the most common reasons why people start.
- It’s a form of peer pressure.
- It makes them feel like they fit in or belong to a clique or group.
- It helps them forget about their stresses and worries.
- It gives them a sense of confidence.
- It provides a rush and exciting thrill.
- It helps fill boredom or loneliness.
- It makes them feel they can enjoy a party, concert or club.
- It makes them feel they have the ability to ‘connect’ with people.
- It’s a fun and social activity.
- It’s a ‘bad’ or taboo or edgy activity.
- It gives them attention.
When is drug use a problem?
The most reliable way to ensure that a drug causes no long-term harm is to not take it.
From there, the degree of harm that can result from drug taking increases with the regularity and dose with which the drug is consumed.
Trying a drug once (even though it can be problematic) is less likely to result in long-term harm than taking a drug regularly. Drug taking can become a problem when it becomes a regular habit and/or an addiction. Instead of being an occasional or recreational activity, it can become a significant part of someone’s life. The drug becomes so central to them that behaviour changes, adversely affecting anything from finances and relationships to physical and mental health.
Here are some of the most common signs that drug use has become problematic.
- You find that you consume drugs to cope with emotionally painful or difficult situations, rather than as a recreational pursuit.
- You find you’re spending more time taking drugs, and/or time acquiring drugs, at the expense of important things like work, time with friends and family, your favourite hobbies, parenting, etc.
- You hide or lie about your drug taking to your spouse, family, friends or acquaintances.
- You find that you’re under the influence while at work, seeing your family, playing a sport or at social occasions.
- You get angry, depressed, irritable or despondent when you can’t access drugs.
- You spend money that you shouldn’t, or you rack up debt on credit or from an individual.
- You’ve gotten in trouble with the law, either for some kind of possession or as a result of behaviour while under the influence.
- You find that you need to use drugs to feel ‘normal’ or to get through the day.
- You find yourself buying drugs with money reserved for bills, rent and other important things.
- You constantly think or talk about getting high.
- You’ve tried many times to stop but you find you can’t.
- You feel embarrassed, ashamed or even resigned about your drug taking.
- Your physical health is deteriorating (weight gain or loss, teeth grinding, skin picking, etc.) or you have sustained injuries from or during drug use.
- You find that you have sharp mood swings or you regularly become more depressed, angry or paranoid.
- You find that friends and family have distanced themselves or severed contact.
- You blame others or believe that they are in some way responsible for your drug taking.
How can people who are dependent on drugs get help?
A complex set of emotional, social and physiological factors are often at the heart of habitual drug use. Breaking the hold requires an understanding of these factors and causes.
- Physiological factors may be part of drug addiction. This is where the effect of the drug, or the effect of its absence, can physically manifest. For example, irritability is a common symptom of nicotine withdrawal while a more extreme example can be found in withdrawal from opioids like heroin (it can include vomiting, sweating and muscle spasms).
- Emotional pain is often associated with prolonged drug taking. For example, a person may have low self-esteem, feel like they have little to look forward to in life (e.g. career-wise or from a relationship), or carry some kind of trauma. There can be any number of underlying psychological factors and addressing problematic drug use requires that these issues be addressed in turn.
- Social factors can also play a large part. For example, the need for inclusiveness or being around other drug users can significantly affect how someone manages addiction.
Problematic drug use is a complex issue. It usually has many underlying causes. Drug addiction can be overcome, leading to a better quality of life.
Worried about drug use? Need drug addiction help? Call 1300 059 625 for a free and safe talk with a professional counsellor.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.
1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: detailed findings, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/illicit-use-of-drugs/2016-ndshs-detailed/contents/table-of-contents, accessed 12/07/2018