Drugs and alcohol

This resource looks at drugs and alcohol, and offers support and advice to young people on what to do if they are struggling or want more information.

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

A drug is a substance that causes someone to feel or act differently. Drugs come in lots of different forms and are taken in different ways.

Often when we talk about drugs we are referring to illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine or heroin. However, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine in cigarettes are commonly used drugs, and can be bought in shops legally. Even though tobacco and alcohol are legal, they are still addictive and you can become very dependent on them.

People start using drugs and alcohol for lots of different reasons.

Many people start using them to have fun, or because they are curious and want to experiment. Some people use them to help them feel more confident or less stressed. They might use them at certain times to help them get through difficult times or situations. Some people start taking drugs or drinking to fit in with their friends, or because they are being pressured by someone they know.

If you are feeling low or anxious, and are using drugs or alcohol to cope, there are lots of places you can get support. Speak to someone you trust about how you’re feeling.

Drugs can be split into three categories:

  • Stimulants, which speed up your body’s system – e.g. cocaine or ecstasy
  • Depressants, which slow down your body’s system – e.g. alcohol or heroin and opium-related painkillers (morphine, codeine)
  • Hallucinogens, which cause you to hallucinate – e.g. LSD or magic mushrooms

Legal drugs

A legal drug is a substance that causes you to feel or act differently, but which is not against the law to buy or sell. For example, alcohol is a drug, but people over 18 can buy and drink it (though it is against the law for adults to buy alcohol for people under 18).

Sometimes young people use other legal substances, such as sniffing petrol and glue. It is important to remember that these substances were not designed to be sniffed and can have a dangerous effect on the body. Just because a drug is legal does not make it safe.

Sometimes people are prescribed legal drugs by their doctor and then use them inappropriately, for example by taking too many of them. This is still very dangerous, even if the drugs are legal. Some people will also buy drugs that are legal from drug dealers instead of being prescribed them by their doctor. In this case, the drug that they are buying might not be the real drug at all, which creates an added danger. 

Illegal drugs

Illegal drugs are drugs that you are not allowed to make, sell or buy. You can be arrested and face fines or time in prison for doing so. However, if you decide to get help remember that this will be treated as confidential, and will not lead to police involvement. For more information on illegal drugs see the websites further on in this resource.

There are other types of drugs which used to be called ‘legal highs’ that contain chemicals that produce similar effects to drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy. They are now called ‘new’ or ‘novel psychoactive substances’, and are illegal to make or supply. They include things like ‘Spice’ and ‘mephedrone’. You can find out more about them on the Drugwise website.

When buying illegal drugs, you are unlikely to know what is actually in them or how strong they are, and could end up taking something very dangerous.

Drugs can make you feel good for a while. However, if you use drugs or alcohol to help you cope with a situation or feeling, after a while you may feel you need the drug to face that situation or feeling every time. If you spend lots of time with friends who use drugs and alcohol, you’re more likely to use them too.

The more often you use drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to cause different problems, such as:

  • Psychological problems – taking drugs or drinking alcohol often can affect your concentration and memory. This can affect how you perform at school and your ability to do things you enjoy like reading, watching your favourite TV shows or talking to your friends.
  • Social problems – you may find that you start only spending time with other people who are using drugs, and lose contact with other friends. It can also put a strain on your relationship with your family.
  • Physical problems – depending on what kind of drug you are using, your physical health can be negatively impacted in lots of different ways.
  • Financial problems – drugs and alcohol cost money, and if you are using them often you might find that you start to spend all of your money on them and don’t have money to spend on things you enjoy.

Try speaking to someone you trust if you feel like using drugs or if alcohol is causing you problems.

Alcohol and some drugs can change your body chemistry if you use them on a regular basis. This means that it is hard to stop using them, and that doing so causes you to have withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms will be different depending on the kind of drug you are using, but can include things like shaking, sweating, feeling sick and a strong urge to take the drug again.

If you use a drug often and find it hard to stop using it or experience withdrawal symptoms when you do, this is called addiction. As well as feeling the physical effects of addiction, you might also find it hard to spend time with friends or to relax without taking drugs or drinking alcohol.

You may find yourself becoming more and more preoccupied with taking drugs, spending large amounts of your time thinking about them and less time thinking about other things in your life. You may feel uneasy and unhappy until you take them again.

If you feel that you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, there is help available. Nicotine in cigarettes can also be very addictive and help is also available to people who want to stop smoking.

Here, 15-year-old Anna talks about how challenges at home and school led to her starting to smoke cannabis and cigarettes. Read more about how she felt and how she decided to get help:

“I never felt as though I fitted in when I was in primary school. I struggled to talk to people and I was always in trouble for not listening and forgetting my homework. My parents split up when I was 4 and I haven’t seen my dad since I was 5. I still miss him, and I wonder what it would be like if I saw him.

“I didn’t find it easy to settle into secondary school, it was difficult to remember which lesson to go to, and which bits of homework I needed to finish. I found myself getting stressed and sometimes I would wait outside the school in the morning so that I didn’t have to walk in through the crowds. I got some detentions, and that made me really frustrated.

“I stopped going to school every day. I didn’t want my mum to know, so I started spending time in town. I met some people who were friendly, and they offered me a spliff. I sort of knew it was cannabis, but it was so nice to feel accepted that I said yes. My friend started trying to get me to sell a bit of cannabis, but I didn’t want to. I realised that I was starting to really want a spliff and then that I was buying cigarettes.

“I saw a poster for a local service that works with kids who are using drugs. Now I’ve got a really nice worker and she’s been talking to me about getting back into school.”

In an emergency

If you or someone you know has used drugs or alcohol and is in immediate danger, call 999 or go to your local A&E.

Information for young people

  • Childline – A free, confidential service for young people under the age of 19 in the UK to support you with any issues you are going through. Phone: 0800 1111
  • Drugwise – Topical, evidence-based and non-judgemental advice on drugs
  • Talk to Frank - Free confidential drugs information and advice line. Phone: 0300 1236600
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse – information about your brain and addiction
  • Re-Solv – facts and research about solvent abuse

Where to get further support

  • Addiction services – Find your local pharmacy and ask about addiction services in your area. Or use this online search to find addiction services near you.
  • NHS – The NHS offers information on different drugs to support people with getting help:

This information was produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB). It reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing.

With grateful thanks to the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH).

Full references available on request.

© August 2022 Royal College of Psychiatrists