Substance misuse is the harmful use of drugs or alcohol for non-medical purposes. Often associated with the use of illicit drugs, legal substances can also be misused, such as alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter medication, caffeine, nicotine and volatile substances (e.g. petrol, glue, paint). Most people with a substance use disorder are using alcohol.

Addiction is a physical and/or psychological need to use a substance, often caused by regular continued use. Some substances are more highly addictive than others. Some people are more likely to become addicted to a substance depending on mental, physical and lifestyle factors.



  • Regularly or continued substance use to cope emotionally, socially or physically
  • Neglecting responsibilities and activities that are important or enjoy (e.g. work, study, family, hobbies, sports, social commitments)
  • Participating in dangerous or risky behaviours as a result of substance use (e.g. drink driving, unprotected sex, using dirty needles)
  • Relationship problems (e.g. arguments with partner, family, friends, or losing friends)
  • Physical tolerance – needing more of the substance to experience the same effects
  • Withdrawal – physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when you are not using the substance or needing the substance to feel “normal”
  • Losing control of your substance use – being dependent or unable to stop even if you want or try to
  • Substance use takes over your life (e.g. spending a lot of time using, finding or getting the substance and recovering from the effects)



People use drugs and alcohol for many reasons – to relax, have fun, socialise, cope with problems, escape life or dull emotional/physical pain. Using substances to cope doesn’t make problems go away, and can make them worse or add new problems to the mix. Becoming dependent on drugs in order to cope, rather than getting help or finding positive solutions, can create longer term problems.




Substance abuse and addiction can have short-term and long-term impacts on physical, mental, social and financial health.

Get help if you are experiencing any of these affects:

  • Physical health – nausea, aches and pains, sleep problems, weight gain/loss, infections, accidents, illness or chronic disease.
  • Mental health – depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis
  • Personal relationships – family problems, arguments, relationship breakdowns, loss of friends
  • Work or financial – job loss, trouble at work or study, debt, unemployment
  • Social impacts – loss of interest or time to do things you like, reduced participation in social activities, criminal problems, anti-social behaviours, isolation




It is difficult to accept you have a problem and to ask for help. Be honest with yourself and others and get the help and support you need.

  1. Recognise when your substance use has become a problem – realising and accepting that you are abusing or addicted to substances is the first step to finding help.
  2. Get support – getting through this on your own can be difficult. Talk to friends, family, your doctor, other health professionals or a telephone helpline about your substance use.
  3. Investigate options for help – manage and treat substance misuse and addiction through counselling, medication, rehabilitation centres, self-help programs or support networks. You might need to try a number of options before you find what works for you – it’s important to keep trying.
  4. Find alternative coping strategies – if you are using substances to cope with life or escape personal problems, find other ways to manage the situation and deal with life’s stress and pressures. By dealing with other problems in your life you can make it easier to recover and not relapse.
  5. Deal with setbacks and keep going – Recovery can be a long and difficult road. Expect some setbacks and don’t focus on failures, focus on your plan and understand your triggers and how to best respond to them in future.

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