Substance Use Problems: Coping and Identifying Addiction

Substance Use Problems:

Coping and Identifying Addiction In Australia, it’s an alarming fact that nearly one in 20 adults have a substance use disorder. From the bustling cities of Sydney and Melbourne to the rural communities scattered across the continent, substance use problems affect our mates, families, and communities.

Recognizing this pressing issue is the first step toward meaningful change, so if you want to understand substance use problems, their symptoms, triggers, and treatments, you’ve come to the right place.

Recognizing Substance Use Disorder

Substance use refers to the consumption of alcohol, prescription medications, or illegal drugs to alter one’s mental state. It becomes problematic when it leads to substance use disorder—a medical condition diagnosed when recurrent drug or alcohol use causes significant impairments. These impairments often manifest as health issues, disability, and failure to meet work, school, or home responsibilities.

The mental health care community employs various criteria to recognize substance use disorder. Symptoms to look out for include withdrawal symptoms upon cessation, an increased tolerance to the substance, and multiple failed attempts to quit or reduce usage.

According to Australian statistics, some of the most commonly abused substances include alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and prescription medications, often leading to co-occurring mental disorders.

Certification Mental Health First Aid
Certification Mental Health First Aid

Substance Use and Substance Dependence:
The Difference

“I can stop when I want to.” This not-so-innocent phrase is often said by substance users worldwide. However, it might have unforeseen roots in substance dependence. Understanding the difference between substance use and dependence is essential for individuals and their healthcare providers.

Substance use can be a broad term, encompassing anything from casual or experimental drug use to more chronic forms. On the other hand, substance dependence is a more serious clinical condition characterized by an inability to cease usage despite experiencing significant negative consequences.

This often manifests as physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not taken, leading to a cycle that may require specialized drug addiction treatment. Medically speaking, substance dependence manifests once the body begins to experience symptoms without a drug of choice (or sometimes a cocktail of drugs). In extreme cases, these signs and symptoms may be labeled as “withdrawal symptoms.”

Recognizing Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders encompass a range of conditions that affect a person’s mood, thought processes, and behavior.

Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia can significantly impact an individual’s daily life. For many, depression is a gateway for negative health-seeking behavior that sends them into a spiral of drug use and dependence. It’s worth noting that mental health disorders often co-occur with substance use disorders, creating a complex interplay between them.

Co occurring mental disorders make treatment more challenging but not impossible, and mental health services are increasingly incorporating treatments that address both issues simultaneously.

Understanding the difference between substance use and substance dependence, identifying withdrawal symptoms, and acknowledging the role of mental illness are all part of the bigger picture. Knowledge is your first line of defense and step to reclaiming your life.

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that both substance use disorders and mental health disorders are medical conditions, not moral failings. They require professional intervention like any other health issue, and there’s no shame in seeking help. Behavioral therapies, medication, and long-term aftercare can provide your ongoing support.

Catalogue of Commonly Abused Substances

In Australia, various substances are frequently abused from legal and illicit sources.
Alcohol remains the most commonly abused substance, with around 3,000 deaths and over 65,000 hospitalizations annually linked to alcohol consumption. Another legal substance, prescription medications, are also widely misused.

According to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 4.2% of Australians had misused pharmaceuticals in the past 12 months. On the illicit side, recent reports suggest that about 10% of Australians have used cannabis, making it the most commonly used illicit drug.

The landscape of substance abuse and mental health disorders in Australia also includes using stimulants such as methamphetamines. About 1.4% of Australians have used methamphetamines or amphetamines in the last year.

Interestingly, these stats also tie into mental health, as individuals suffering from mental disorders are more likely to resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

Marijuana, Hashish, and Other Cannabis-Containing Substances

The most commonly used illicit substances in Australia are often seen as a gateway to other types of substance abuse.

K2, Spice, and Bath Salts

These synthetic cannabinoids have unpredictable and often dangerous effects, significantly different from natural cannabis.

Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, and Hypnotics

Often prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders, these substances are widely misused and can lead to dependency.

Meth, Cocaine, and Other Stimulants

Highly addictive substances that increase energy, focus, and euphoric feelings but can also lead to severe mental health issues.

Club Drugs

Substances like MDMA and ecstasy are commonly used recreationally but carry significant risks, including dependency and other adverse health effects.


Drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms are used less frequently but can have unpredictable psychological effects.


Substances like glue and aerosol sprays are often abused, especially among younger demographics.

Opioid Painkillers

Often started as a legitimate prescription for pain, misuse can quickly lead to dependency and other severe health complications.


This category includes a variety of less commonly used substances like anabolic steroids and certain over-the-counter medications, which are abused and pose health risks.

Substance Abuse Signs

Recognizing substance abuse can be complex as the signs are often subtle and variable and can easily be attributed to other issues such as stress or pre-existing mental health disorders. However, early identification is crucial for effective intervention and treatment. Substance abuse signs manifest in three key areas: behavioral, physical, and emotional.

Behavioral signs are the most evident, including neglecting work, school, or home responsibilities. There may also be drastic changes in social circles, often leaning towards other individuals who share similar substance use habits. Additionally, there is a marked decrease in interest in activities that were once important or enjoyable to the individual, from hobbies to family gatherings.

Physical symptoms are also indicators of substance abuse and might involve noticeable weight changes—either gain or loss—disheveled appearance, or lack of coordination. The person may also experience frequent sickness or withdrawal symptoms when the substance is unavailable.

Emotional symptoms present another avenue for recognizing substance abuse. These may include unexplained mood swings, heightened irritability, paranoia, or depression.

The ramifications of these symptoms are far-reaching and not limited to the individual alone. The ripple effect can extend to family, friends, the workplace, and the broader community. For example, substance abuse can lead to strained relationships, decreased productivity at work, and increased risk of accidents or legal troubles.

Therefore, early identification and treatment by mental health services and healthcare providers are essential for minimizing negative outcomes.

Diagnosing Substance Abuse

Diagnosis of substance abuse, officially termed substance use disorders in the medical community, is a structured process that involves multiple steps. Healthcare providers usually start by conducting a thorough medical history and physical examination.

Several diagnostic criteria, often from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), confirm a diagnosis. These can include increased usage over time, unsuccessful attempts to quit, withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not used, and a noticeable impact on one’s social and occupational functioning.

Dual Diagnosis

A dual diagnosis occurs when an individual is found to have a substance use disorder along with a co occurring mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. This complicates treatment as the two conditions can interact and exacerbate each other, creating a cycle that’s harder to break.

When addressing dual diagnosis, an integrated approach that tackles substance use and the co occurring mental disorder is often the most effective. Mental health services, therefore, have begun to incorporate comprehensive treatment plans that address both elements.

Addiction and Substance Abuse

While both terms are often used interchangeably, substance abuse and addiction are different. Substance abuse is the harmful or hazardous use of alcohol and illegal drugs.
Addiction, however, implies physical, psychological, or both dependency on the substance in question. An individual can abuse a substance without being addicted, although abuse often leads to addiction.

Cause of Substance Disorder

Substance use disorders are complex conditions with no single cause. Often, it’s a combination of factors that contribute to the development of these disorders. Genetic predisposition and environmental factors like peer pressure, family influence, and socioeconomic status can play a role.

Additionally, people with pre-existing mental health conditions are at a higher risk of developing substance use problems, often using substances as a coping mechanism for their mental illness. It’s important to recognize that substance use disorders are multifactorial and necessitate a holistic treatment approach for effective drug abuse.

Substance Abuse Disorder and Mental Health Disorder

Drug abuse disorders and mental health disorders often co-exist in a complex web of causality and influence. For instance, individuals suffering from mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder are more susceptible to turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Conversely, substance use can also exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues or even contribute to the onset of new mental disorders. The overlap between these two disorders is so prevalent that “dual diagnosis” is frequently used to describe individuals who experience both.

The co-occurrence of substance use disorders and mental health disorders presents unique challenges for both diagnosis and treatment. One condition can often mask the symptoms of the other, leading to misdiagnosis and ineffective treatment plans.

Additionally, some medications commonly used for treating mental health conditions can interact adversely with substances, complicating the clinical picture further. Therefore, a holistic, integrated approach that addresses substance use and co occurring mental disorders is imperative for effective treatment.

Substance Use Disorder Therapy

When it comes to therapy for substance use disorders, a range of options are available, often tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Cognitive-behavioral therapies, for example, focus on teaching individuals new ways of thinking and behaving to avoid substance use.

Motivational interviewing and incentives aim to boost one’s motivation to change substance use behavior. Family therapy often includes the patient’s close family and friends to provide additional support and accountability.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is often recommended alongside behavioral therapies in more severe cases. MAT combines medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a “whole-patient” approach.

Healthcare providers often recommend a mix of these treatments, sometimes in a residential setting, for a more effective outcome. Therefore, anyone with substance use problems must consult a healthcare provider for a diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.

Certification Mental Health First Aid

When to Seek Professional Help

Realizing you or someone you love is facing substance use problems is a critical first step, but knowing when to seek professional help can often be confusing. Thankfully, Australia offers many options for those ready to tackle their issues head-on.

The support network is comprehensive, from mental health services to drug addiction treatment facilities. For an intervention, the process typically involves:

  • Gathering close friends and family to present a united front.

  • Sharing stories.

  • Urging the person to get professional help.

Services like Lifeline Australia, Headspace, and the Alcohol and Drug Foundation can offer more specific advice on intervention strategies and locating local treatment options.


  • What is a substance use problem?

    A substance use problem occurs when the recurrent use of alcohol or drugs causes significant impairment, including health problems and failure to meet responsibilities.

  • What are the problems with substance abuse?
    Substance abuse leads to physical and mental health issues, disrupts relationships, and can result in legal troubles and financial instability.

  • What are 3 substance use disorders?
    Alcohol Use Disorder, Opioid Use Disorder, and Cannabis Use Disorder are three common types of substance use disorders.

  • What are the 3 risk factors for substance use problems?
    Genetic predisposition, environmental factors such as exposure to trauma, and co-occurring mental health disorders are risk factors for substance use problems.
    By reaching out to healthcare providers and using available resources, it’s possible to get onto a path of recovery and improved mental health.

Substance Use Disorders: Parting Thoughts

Navigating the complex landscape of substance use problems, mental health disorders, and their co occurring manifestations can be daunting. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to remember that you’re not alone.

Australia has a robust network of health care providers and mental health services designed to help you every step—from recognizing substance abuse signs to seeking effective drug addiction treatment.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol use and possibly mental disorders, the time to seek help is now. Consult your healthcare providers, reach out to mental health services, and begin the journey to recovery today. It’s never too late to turn the page.