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Alcohol is one of the most prevalent recreational drugs in Australia, and is a major cause of injury and death for young Australians. Drinking can become problematic when many alcoholic drinks are consumed in a short period of time (binge drinking), or when a person becomes psychologically and/or physically dependant to alcohol. Situations involving alcohol and drugs use often lead to other risky behaviours and activities, such as drink driving, unsafe sex or outbursts of violence.

Signs alcohol or drug use may be a problem:

  • experiencing blackouts when drinking
  • drinking alone
  • concealing drinking from family and friends
  • having unsafe sex, or regretting past sexual activity that occurred under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • physical withdrawal symptoms including, sweating, nausea, shaking or trembling in the absence of drug or alcohol use
  • social withdrawal
  • mood swings
  • failing relationships with friends and family
  • impaired performance at school or work.
Beer bottles and plastic cups full of beer in toast

About alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant drug that slows activity of the central nervous system (CNS). It is legal (above the age of 18 years) and extremely prevalent in Australia. Drinking in moderation can cause people to feel more confident and sociable, but can also seriously impair coordination, judgement calls and decision making.

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking is the excessive intake of alcohol either over a period of hours, days or weeks. It is estimated that at least one in five Australians 14 years and older have consumed a high risk amount of alcohol on at least one occasion in the previous 12 months. Binge drinking is most common in those aged 20-29 years, therefore early intervention and awareness of the risks associated with binge drinking is vital. Females aged 14-17 years tend to binge drink slightly more often than males, a trend which has been increasing in recent years.

Short-term effects of binge drinking

Young people engaging in binge drinking put themselves at risk of a range of other potentially harmful situations such as:

  • drink driving
  • exposure to or engaging in violence
  • unsafe sex
  • alcohol poisoning
  • blackouts.

Long-term effects of binge drinking

The long term effects of regular binge drinking are just as serious, possibly leading to:

  • physical and psychological dependence on alcohol
  • liver and brain damage
  • increased risk of cancers of the throat, mouth and oesophagus
  • increased likelihood of developing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
  • intensifying existing mental health problems.

Alcohol dependence

Drinking regularly is a serious issue that may result in a person developing a psychological and physical dependence on alcohol. People with alcohol dependence often:

  • drink alone, and often try to conceal this behaviour
  • drink in the morning and/or to help with a hangover from the previous day
  • worry about when they will have their next drink
  • experience physical withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, including tremors, sweating, nausea and insomnia
  • have a high threshold or tolerance for alcohol, i.e. needing more and more alcohol to get drunk
  • experience relationship difficulties with friends, family and work colleagues.

About other drugs

There are many recreational legal and illegal drugs that people routinely use. Illegal drugs often pose great health risks not only because of their active substances, but because there is no telling what they have been mixed or ‘cut’ with. Drugs are often classed into three different categories:

Depressants

Depressants are drugs that slow the central nervous system, slowing messages relaying to and from the brain. The most commonly used depressants are cannabis (or marijuana) and alcohol. Others include sedatives such as valium, and opiates such as heroin and morphine which are both highly addictive. Petrol or glue may be inhaled (a practice known as chroming). Around 34% of people state they have used cannabis at least once in their lifetime. Although a depressant, cannabis can trigger psychosis. Using different depressants at the one time is likely to result in overdose.

Negative symptoms associated with depressants are:

  • passing out
  • vomiting
  • in severe cases, stopping breathing.

Stimulants

Stimulants work in the opposite way to depressants, by essentially speeding up the signals in the CNS. Stimulants range from mild (and legal) substances such as caffeine and nicotine, to strong (and illegal) substances such as cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines such as speed and ice (or crystal meth). In 2004 9% of Australians aged 14 years and older said they had used amphetamines at least once (3% in the last 12 months).

Symptoms associated with stimulants include:

  • agitation, paranoia and psychosis (especially common with ice, which can often leave people without sleep for days)
  • increased energy (especially with amphetamine use)
  • experiencing euphoria (especially with ecstasy use)
  • increased heart rate and body temperature, which can be dangerous when taken at raves or other high physical activity environments
  • decreased hunger.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are generally thought of as ‘mind altering’ or ‘trippy’ drugs. They can alter or distort sensory information and perceptions of reality (which can be a positive or negative experience). The most common forms of hallucinogens include LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline, high doses of cannabis and ecstasy.

Symptoms associated with hallucinogens include:

  • altered senses (distorted sights and sounds)
  • increased anxiety or panic (especially during or after a bad ‘trip’)
  • engaging in risky behaviour ( jumping off things that would usually be considered too high, for example)
  • psychosis.

Addiction

People can experience addiction, sometimes known as substance abuse or dependence, in varying severity. Any drug use that interferes with daily functioning is considered a problem. Problematic dependence is classified as such when efforts to discontinue drug use repeatedly fail, when a person devotes substantial time and energy into obtaining the drug and will/cannot discontinue substance use despite the problems triggered by it (health, social and financial). Physical dependence is characterised by the occurrence of physical withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the drug (sweating, nausea, trembling).

What young people can do about problematic alcohol and other drug use

There are many things that young people can do in the early stages of problem drinking or drug use. Lifestyle changes, with increased physical activity, and spending time with friends who do not take drugs/alcohol or are happy to make changes to accommodate to a drug/alcohol free environment.

Substance abuse often becomes and is maintained as it becomes a form of coping mechanism, focusing on learning new coping strategies can help to lessen dependency on drugs and alcohol. Addressing possible underlying mental health problems, is also vital in preventing the progression of drug and alcohol abuse.

Practical tips for planning nights out can minimise the potential dangers associated with drinking and drug use, for example it may be useful to have a designated sober driver or make alternate transport plans ahead of time. Knowing what is being consumed is important, whether it be drugs or alcohol, as well as having a person to call if feeling unsafe, or worried about a friend (e.g. a parent or older sibling).

ReachOut.com resources on alcohol and other drugs

Recommended professional resources

How to help

  • Talk with them non-judgementally about their concerns or use.
  • Help them plan ways to reduce problematic drinking or drug use.
  • Direct young people to support services such as al-anon and al-anon teen support groups.