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How Substance Use Impacts Mental Health: 5 Commonly Abused Substances

Commonly Abused Substances

The term ‘substance abuse’ refers to harmful or noxious consumption of psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, illegal drugs and other prescribed medications in amounts or quantities that are harmful to a person.

Drug addiction or substance use disorders often lead to alteration in thinking, judgment, perception, attention, behavioral and cognitive impairment, physical and psychological dependence, and possibly even death.

Commonly abused substances and their mental health impact

Both legal and illegal drugs have chemicals that can alter how your body and mind works. They can give you transient feelings of pleasure, ease your stress, or help you avoid problems in your life. Nearly all drugs of abuse can also produce tolerance and dependence, in which one must use a larger amount of the drug to produce the same level of intoxication.

Five commonly abused substances include:

1) Alcohol: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Many people develop a drinking habit to temporarily alleviate feelings of tension and anxiety. But drinking too much and too often, can increase the chance of an injury or accident. Drinking five or more drinks for men and four for women in any one sitting is considered binge drinking, which can be harmful to your physical and mental health in many different ways.

Mental health effects of alcohol: Insomnia, loss of control, impaired judgment, disorientation and mood swings are short-term effects of acute alcoholism. However, regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain by decreasing the levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, a key chemical involved in causing depression. If a person goes on a binge, a cyclical process begins where one drinks to relieve depression, causing serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to a more depressed state.

Alcohol is associated with many serious social and developmental issues, such as traffic accidents or violent behavior, child neglect and abuse, and negative impacts on co-workers, relatives, friends, or strangers.

2) Marijuana:  Marijuana or cannabis is a widely used psychoactive drug. In some regions of the world it’s legalized for medicinal and recreational use. When smoked, it quickly enters the bloodstream and then crosses the blood-brain barrier, thus a person feels “high” (chilled out, happy, relaxed, talkative, or laughing more than usual).

Mental health effects of marijuana: In high amounts, the negative mental health impacts of marijuana or cannabis include:

Anyone who has an existing mental health condition such as depression, psychosis, bipolar disorder, or anxiety should avoid marijuana due to particularly high risk of mental health problems caused by the drug.

3) Prescription and Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicine

Prescription and nonprescription (OTC) drug abuse involves:

  • Using a drug for a purpose other than for what it is prescribed
  • Taking a dose more than recommended on the package
  • Taking medicine prescribed for someone else
  • Taking the drug for a non-medical reason

By whatever means, these medicines can be as dangerous and addictive as illegal drugs.

Most commonly abused prescription medications include:

  • Painkillers for example, opioid pain relievers (e.g., oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl)
  • Barbiturates and benzodiazepines (stress and anxiety-related medications)
  • Hypnotics and tranquilizers (sleeping pills)

These drugs are frequently misused in search of a sense of relaxation or a desire to “switch off” or forget stress-related thoughts or feelings.

Mental health effects of prescription drug abuse: Drowsiness, slurred speech, lack of coordination, irritability or changes in mood, problems concentrating or thinking clearly, memory problems, involuntary eye movements, lack of inhibition.

Dextromethorphan in cough syrups and codeine, a common OTC drug that is used to treat mild to moderate pain, and to relieve cough and diarrhea. Chronic use of these medications can cause physical dependence, drug craving, insomnia, irritability, dissociative states, coordination problems, slurred speech, and even seizures and hallucinogenic effects.

After marijuana, prescription painkillers, such as opioids, are the most abused drugs in the U.S., and more people die from overdoses each day than from traffic accidents and gun deaths combined.

4) Stimulants (including amphetamines, cocaine, crystal meth): These drugs are used to treat obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and mood disorders. These drugs stimulate the central nervous system (CNS). They raise levels of dopamine, a natural chemical messenger in our body, into that part of the brain that controls pleasure. Effects of high levels of dopamine include a feeling of intense happiness, increased energy, attention, alertness, sociability, increased self-esteem, and elated mood. However, these are short-term effects.

Mental health effects of stimulants: Stimulant intoxication causes significant problematic behavioral or psychological changes. These may include:

  • Euphoria
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Anger and irritability
  • Interpersonal sensitivity
  • Auditory hallucinations
  • Paranoid thoughts
  • Repetitive movement
  • Convulsions and seizures
  • Mood problems

5) Inhalants: Inhalants are volatile substances commonly present in many household products. Commonly abused inhalants include paint thinners, nail polish remover, aerosol sprays such as deodorants, hair spray, air fresheners, and gases such as gasoline, ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide.

Mental health effects of inhalants: Inhalants induce mind-altering effects. They are often abused by young people because they are easily accessible and not illegal. However, inhalants are highly toxic and can cause depression, memory impairment, damage to cardiovascular and nervous systems, unconsciousness, and sudden death.

Substance abuse vs mental health disorders, OR Mental health disorders vs substance abuse?

It has been found in many studies that substance abuse and mental illness often co-exist. The presence of an underlying psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or mood disorders can also increase one’s propensity to abuse substances. While in other cases, drug abuse may trigger or worsen these pre-existing mental health disorders, particularly in susceptible people.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), an important feature of substance use disorders is an underlying change in brain circuits that may persist beyond detoxification.

Therefore, it is now widely recommended that a person with a mental health disorder or substance use disorder should undergo a co-occurring treatment process. The treatment plan that addresses both the mental health issues and the substance abuse will lead to better outcomes.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: 

Dr. Tayaba is a medical doctor, medical educationist and writer. She is a mom of two beautiful kids, a girl and a boy, aged 4 and 1.5 years old. She blogs about mental health issues. She aims to raise awareness about mental health among the new generation. You can read her blogs on mental health on this link Rants Of A Lazy Mom


Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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