Drug Abuse Contributed by:

What is Drug Abuse?

Drugs are chemicals that affect your body or brain in some way. Not all drugs are illegal and some examples of drugs that you might come across in every day life are paracetamol, alcohol and cold and flu medicine. However even these drugs can have harmful effects if they are not used how they are designed to be used. Some examples of illegal drugs that you might have heard of are cannabis (or weed), cocaine, heroin and MDMA (ecstasy or pills). These drugs can be harmful even in small quantities.

Drug abuse, also known as substance abuse, is where someone uses a drug too much and becomes addicted to it or dependent on it. This could be either an illegal or a legal drug. Addiction (or dependence) is when an individual has a psychological desire to keep on using a drug even though it may be causing them harm. They usually find it very hard to stop using the drug. Individuals often find that they need to use higher and higher doses of the drug to experience the same effect – this is called tolerance.

For many drugs, if you stop using after a period of regular use, you may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, which can be a reason why people continue to use.

Fast Facts!

Drugs affect the circuits in your brain. We know that there are at least two ways drugs work in the brain:

  • Imitating the brain’s natural chemical messengers that carry messages between nerves
  • Over stimulating the “reward circuit” of the brain – this is the part of the brain that makes you feel good when you have done something.

Drug usage is higher for young people than for the whole population. For people aged 16-24, 2.5 million people (37.7%) had ever taken an illicit drug in their lifetime. The most commonly used drug in the UK is cannabis.

What causes it?

There is no one cause of drug abuse. Addiction can depend on 3 main factors – the drug, the person and the environment.

Drug factors include how addictive the drug is, how long you’ve been using it and how much you normally use. Person factors include the person’s genetic predisposition to addiction and their ability to cope with stress. And finally, environmental factors are linked to the circumstances that the person lives in such as family problems, not being able to get a job, not having friends or family around to talk to, or social pressures from other people or the media.

What are the symptoms?

All drugs are different so different drugs will have different effects. In general though, people who are dealing with addiction usually:

  1. Feel the need for the drug regularly.
  2. Have a need for a constant supply of it.
  3. Have failed to stop using drugs in the past.
  4. Will do things they normally wouldn’t do (such as stealing).
  5. Struggle to maintain a safe quality of life due to their dependence

Drugs can be broadly divided into three categories based on their main effects. They may act solely as stimulants, as depressants or as hallucinogens (aka psychedelics).

Stimulants make you feel alert and like you have lots of energy and confidence. However, they can put pressure on your heart and there is a risk of heart failure (eg. cocaine, ecstasy, speed).

Depressants make you feel relaxed and chilled out but they can slow down your heart rate and breathing which can be fatal (eg. alcohol, cannabis, heroin).

Hallucinogens can make you view reality in a distorted way – your sense of movement and time can speed up or slow down and you might see vivid distortions, illusions or hallucinations (seeing things that are there; eg. LSD, magic mushrooms).

Withdrawal symptoms from drugs if you try to come off a drug without help may include anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, sweating, headaches, poor concentration, vomiting and depression.

For the specific effects of each different drug, have a look at talktofrank.com (linked in the “want to know more?” section) for an A-Z of all the different kinds of drugs.

How is it diagnosed?

If you are using more than usual, can’t control your use or are even beginning to question your own use, you should talk to someone about your drug use. It may be difficult for someone suffering from drug dependency to recognise their problem. If you think that someone you know may be addicted to drugs, you should try and talk to them without judging them. Offer to go with them to the GP or to a treatment service.

There are two ways in which you can get a drug problem recognised:

Self-referral – when someone goes straight to the treatment service to get help. Details about treatment centres are available online if you look at the NHS website (linked in the “want to know more?” section), or you could look in the phone book. If you want details of treatment services, talktofrank.com also has a directory of treatment services or you can call the FRANK helpline and talk confidentially to one of their advisors.


Through your GP – someone with a drug abuse problem could go to their GP and they would refer them on to the specialised treatment service.


How is it treated?

The first step when someone with a drug addiction arrives at a treatment centre is to assess their drug use. If they are deemed appropriate for treatment, they will then be allocated a keyworker. This keyworker may be a doctor, nurse or drugs worker.

Their keyworker will help to organise the treatment they need and develop a personalised care plan with the input of the person who is abusing drugs. This care plan normally details their immediate and longer-term treatment goals and is updated throughout their time in treatment as their needs and circumstances change. The person will see their keyworker for regular one-to-one sessions during their treatment.

Psychological therapies such as CBT and motivational treatment therapies are used. Group therapies or therapeutic work with their family might also be offered to people who have a drug abuse problem.

Certain drugs, such as heroin and tranquilisers, have a safer alternative that may be prescribed to help counter withdrawal symptoms. According to the care plan, this prescription will decrease in dosage while the person also takes part in psychological therapies.

Recovery from drug abuse often involves a serious long-term lifestyle change such as moving away from an area and making new friends. This can help to stabilise the social factors that may have led to the drug abuse in the first place and can hopefully help to avoid relapse.