What is drug and alcohol abuse?

Drug and alcohol abuse, also called substance abuse, refers to the repeated and ongoing usage of legal and illegal substances such as tobacco, alcohol, dagga, and other drugs. Adolescence and young adulthood is a time when many people experiment with alcohol and other substances. But young people often do not realise the dangers that these substances hold for their health.

General symptoms of substance abuse to look out for:

  • Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Decline in physical appearance and personal hygiene
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination

How does substance abuse affect young people?

The SA National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that 15% of school pupils admitted to using over-the-counter drugs to get high. The same study found that 11.5% of pupils had tried at least one drug, such as heroin, Mandrax, sugars or tik

The same survey found that tobacco and alcohol are generally the most commonly used substances amongst South African youth, with a study by SA Breweries confirming that half of South African teenagers regularly drink alcohol. Because both tobacco and alcohol are legal, many young people consider them to be acceptable and safe, despite the considerable negative health and social impacts associated with them.

Substance abuse and addiction has many potential negative physical and mental health effects for the users, such as increased risk of injury and death due to violence or accidents; increased chances of engaging in sexual behaviour with high risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmittable diseases; and increased risk for the development of mental disorders and suicidal behaviour. Under students, substance abuse has also been linked to declining grades, high absenteeism and school dropouts as well as involvement in crime and gang-related activities.

Substance abuse can be common among young people suffering from mental health conditions. Young people experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses often turn to drugs or alcohol to find temporary comfort. These substances are also sometimes used as a coping mechanism for those enduring a great deal of stress or hardship, such as experiencing troubles at home or at school, or losing a loved one. Using drugs or alcohol to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms of mental illness is sometimes called ‘self-medication.’ But it can make existing mental health problems worse.

Can substance abuse be treated? 

With the right treatment and support, substance abuse and addiction can be treated. Based on your individual needs and the substance/s involved, the treatment process may be compiled of all or some of the following aspects:

Detoxification, which is the process by which the body rids itself of a substance

Psychotherapy (talk therapy), to help change your behaviour and thinking

Medication, which is sometimes prescribed in treatment  for opioid, tobacco, or alcohol addiction

Evaluation and treatment for possible co-occurring mental health problems such as depression or anxiety

Healthy routine including getting enough sleep, following a balanced diet and getting regular exercise

Remember that recovery from substance abuse and addiction is a life-long process.

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