The link between drug use and mental health problems is one that has caused increasing community concern over the past few years. Many people have mental illnesses and although some of these people will experience these illnesses only once and never again, others will have these problems recur throughout their lives. Although we don’t yet know exactly what triggers a mental illness, we do know that people who use alcohol and drugs are more likely to have these mental problems than people who don’t use these substances.

Among people who drink alcohol heavily, there is a high rate of depression and anxiety. Although we don’t know what comes first, the alcohol or the mental illness, we do know that some people start drinking to help them cope with problems like anxiety and depression and that the alcohol use then also becomes a problem in itself.

When people use amphetamines, they are at a higher risk of having a speed psychosis where they have symptoms of paranoia -“ for example, they may think that people are following them or talking about them. This paranoid condition is usually temporary and the symptoms will disappear when the drug leaves the body, although these symptoms may persist in some people.

Cannabis is widely used and some people, mostly those who haven’t used it before or those who use more than they are used to, will experience unpleasant effects like severe anxiety and panic. Cannabis can also trigger the onset of a mental illness in people who have a history of mental disorders in their family, and also complicates treatment in those whose illness is already present.

After the initial euphoria associated with ecstasy has worn off, for some people there is a hangover effect, where the person has symptoms like insomnia and depression. Recent research has also shown that ecstasy is not a harmless drug and is associated with longer-term mental problems like depression, anxiety, psychotic problems and panic.

Many heroin users also have depression and anxiety. Although we don’t know whether these mental illnesses came before or after the heroin use started, we do know that these problems are very severe and lead to a very high rate of suicide among heroin users.

If you feel as though you have a mental illness as well as a drug and alcohol problem, see or talk to a professional counsellor. Counsellors can help identify any mental illnesses and advise on strategies and treatments that can be used to reduce these problems. Modern medicine means that many mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression can now be effectively treated and the lives of many people improved.

If there is a known mental illness in your family and you use alcohol and/or drugs, be mindful there is an increased risk of these mental illnesses occurring and try to minimise the use of these substances or use them in a safer manner.

This column has been adapted from a new National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre resource: Double Trouble: Drugs And Mental Health.

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