Substance use can mean using any substance ranging from prescription drugs or painkillers, to illicit or recreational drugs. Substance abuse is when a substance is used in unhealthy amounts on a regular basis. It can lead to a wide variety of problems if it becomes an ongoing behaviour. It can affect a person’s home life, schooling, working ability and relationships.

Substance abuse can often leave sufferers feeling very isolated and alone. Dependence or addiction to substances often evolves from trying out a substance due to curiosity or pleasure seeking, followed by reuse of the drug in order to experience the same pleasure again. Often a person who begins by only using the substance occasionally will develop a need to use it a few times a week, then quite frequently. There are many signs of substance abuse or dependence, which can vary depending on the substance being used. Common signs include:

  • Neglect of responsibilities
  • Taking very high risks (often when under the influence of the substance)
  • Legal problems due to the consequences of using the substance
  • The substance use is causing relationship problems (e.g. spouse recommending the person cut back but they refuse to do so)
  • A built up tolerance to the effects of the substance
  • Taking the substance in order to suppress withdrawal symptoms
  • Loss of control over behaviour when using the substance, and decisions whether to use
  • Life revolving around substance use
  • Abandoned previously enjoyed activities in favour of substance use
  • Continued substance use despite knowledge of the harm it may be causing

Often psychological abnormalities can be associated with substance abuse. Drugs primarily affect the brain, and because of this they can often alter normal functioning. Some signs of substance use potentially interfering with a person’s psychological wellbeing include:

  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Mood swings, such as sudden irritability or aggression
  • Episodes of hyperactivity
  • Lethargy or lack of motivation
  • Feelings of anxiety, paranoia or fear for no particular reason

Along with the more immediate psychological effects of substance abuse or dependence, longer-term effects can also occur. Disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and various other disorders can be a result of prolonged substance abuse.

Treatment Options

The approach to treating substance abuse depends on the substance in question. However, the most important part of treatment is for those who suffer from the substance use disorder to able to recognise that they have a problem. The type of psychological treatment that is used also depends on the psychological effects of the drug or the disorder associated with the drug.

What is most important for those who are seeking treatment for substance abuse or dependence is that they have a strong support group to help them through treatment, generally including friends, family, a medical expert and a mental health professional. Having such supports is very beneficial in aiding a person to returning to a healthier lifestyle, as the process of recovery can be quite physically and emotionally challenging.

Finding assistance

If you live in the Canberra region and you believe you may be experiencing difficulties with substance abuse, you can contact Strategic Psychology to arrange to see a psychologist. We can assist you in identifying the issues that are contributing to maintaining your difficulties and recommend strategies that draw on your strengths and passions in order to achieve optimal social, emotional and occupational functioning.

No referral is required in order to see one of our psychologists, however, you can contact your GP for a referral under Medicare (if eligible) to receive a rebate on services provided


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (5th Ed.)