How substance misuse effects mental health

Poor mental health often goes hand-in-hand with substance misuse problems. Here’s how it becomes a vicious cycle, and what it does to our mental wellbeing. 

The relationship between substance misuse and mental health is complex, but there’s no denying that it has a profound impact on our mental wellbeing.  

Some people may rely on drugs to self-medicate mental health problems like depression and anxiety, but substance misuse itself can make mental health problems worse. 

The vicious cycle 

Using substances to cope with anxiety, negative emotions, or low mood may feel like it’s helping in the moment, but doing so worsens mental health problems. Substance misuse has a direct impact on the brain, altering its chemistry and disrupting the delicate balance of neurotransmitters that are essential for mood regulation and behaviour. 

This can affect people differently, but in general, it’s not good for our mental health. The risks include: 

  • Increased anxiety and depression. There’s a strong link between substance misuse, anxiety, and depression.  
  • Cognitive issues. Long-term substance misuse has been linked to memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and impaired judgement. 
  • Psychosis. Some drugs, like stimulants and hallucinogens, can trigger episodes of psychosis, with hallucinations or delusions.  

The knock-on effect of substance misuse on mental health 

Not all mental health problems caused by substance misuse is down to the effect drugs have on the brain. Substance misuse problems can impact many areas of our lives negatively, which can have a big impact on mental health.  

  • Relationship problems. Relationships with friends and family can become strained because of substance addiction, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which make many mental health problems worse. 
  • Financial problems. Substance misuse is expensive, so the cost of buying drugs soon mounts up. Many people who have a problem with substance misuse can’t afford their habit, and continuing to use puts them in financial difficulties. Struggling with money leads to stress, anxiety, and feelings of uncertainty.  
  • Legal problems. Not all people who struggle with substance misuse encounter legal problems, but it’s always a possibility, which adds another layer of anxiety and stress.  
  • Sleep problems. Many substances disrupt sleep, and it’s much harder to break out of negative thought patterns when sleep deprived or feeling anxious about not sleeping. 

Seeking help 

It’s incredibly common for people seeking help for substance misuse problems to be offered help for mental health problems, as for a lot of people, their mental health is very closely linked to their substance misuse issues.  

If you’re struggling with substance misuse and feel your mental health is suffering too, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. There are many resources and treatment options available, so make an appointment with your GP as a starting point, as they’ll be able to refer you to the most appropriate services. Some options include: 

  • Talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help you manage your problems by helping you change the way you think. Deeply ingrained negative thought patterns can contribute to addictive behaviour, so learning how to overcome these thoughts can give you the tools you need to overcome your substance misuse problems. 
  • Support groups. Connecting with others who are in the same boat as you can give valuable support and encouragement to help you overcome substance misuse issues.  
  • Medication. Medication isn’t always offered, but they may be an option to manage symptoms of mental health problems, which will in turn help control substance misuse problems, especially if you’re turning to substances because of poor mental health. 

These treatment options are often given together to maximise their effectiveness. Seeking support and taking steps towards recovery will help you break free from what can often feel like an impossible cycle, so don’t hesitate to reach out.