Alcohol and drugs

Drugs and alcohol change how our brains function – and this is often the attraction for young people. Some want to relax and wind down, while others want to be stimulated or escape from their reality for a while.

For many young people, experimenting with alcohol and drugs is about testing out new experiences, or trying to fit in with their peers.

However, it’s hard to predict how drugs and alcohol will really affect someone, particularly their mental health. It’s important to help your young person develop healthy opinions and attitudes towards drugs and alcohol by talking openly about the issues involved.

How common is drug and alcohol use by young people?

The short answer is ‘pretty common’ – a survey of Australian secondary students aged between 12 and 17 years found that 80 per cent had previously tried alcohol, 14 per cent had used cannabis, and 19 per cent had used inhalants at some time in their lives.1 For young people aged 16-24 years, 12.7 per cent are estimated to have a substance use disorder, with higher rates among young men than young women.2

Of course, this doesn’t mean all young people are drinking excessively or using drugs regularly – there’s a big difference between trying something once or twice and ongoing use. But it can be helpful to think realistically about your young person’s exposure to drugs and alcohol.  

How drug and alcohol use affects mental health

Alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, hallucinogens and inhalants all affect our brains in different ways. Some act as depressants, while others are stimulants and hallucinogens.

Some of the effects of drug and alcohol use in young people include anxiety, agitation, feeling flat or unmotivated, moodiness and changes to a person’s sense of reality. These changes in thoughts, feelings and emotions can lead young people to do things that they wouldn’t normally, such as becoming very aggressive or taking unnecessary risks.

The impact of drugs and alcohol can mean many young people also find it hard to maintain relationships with friends and family, or their work or study performance may drop. For those who have become addicted to their drug of choice, not having the drug can leave them in a constant state of distress.

Drug and alcohol use can increase the risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. For some young people, drug use can also trigger psychosis. For someone who already has a mental health condition, drug and alcohol use can worsen their symptoms, while also interfering with their recovery.

Looking out for changes

If you think drugs and alcohol could be an issue for a young person you care about, there are a few things to consider.

  • Are you aware of them using any drugs and alcohol? Do you know how much or how often?
  • Have their energy levels changed?
  • Are they experiencing more frequent mood changes?
  • Are they having trouble concentrating or making decisions?
  • Are they drinking alcohol every time they socialise with their friends? Are they returning home drunk each time?
  • Are they regretful or embarrassed after drinking alcohol?
  • Are they getting involved in more fights or socialising less?
  • Is money becoming more of an issue than usual?

Supporting positive health and wellbeing

If you’re worried about your young person’s drinking or drug use, it’s important not to jump to conclusions or be confrontational – getting angry or demanding they stop is not constructive and could mean they hide their use from you.

The best thing you can do for your young person is listen without judgment, respect what they’re saying and keep revisiting the conversation. Try and avoid lecturing them or being shocked if they tell you they’re using drugs or alcohol – this is the fastest way to shut down dialogue with your young person.

With a bit of thought and conversation, you can find a way to approach the situation together. This is an important first step in supporting your young person to develop healthy life habits. 

How you can help

  • talking openly to build trust
  • appreciating the young person’s achievements
  • having clear standards and rules for everyone in the family and encourage young people to take responsibility for their actions
  • offering your support if/when it’s needed without judgment or anger. Remind your young person that you’re always there for them
  • understanding that your children model your behaviour. Set a positive example by developing healthy habits, such as following the Australian alcohol guidelines or using music, yoga or mediation to relax
  • being informed. Learn more about drugs and alcohol and how they can affect young people. Use evidence-based sources to ensure you have accurate information
  • talking openly about drugs and alcohol with your young person and listen carefully to their views. Use this as an opportunity to discuss some strategies to cope if they ever feel pressured to use drugs or alcohol.

Supporting change

Changing drug and alcohol habits is a process and can take time. It also needs the person to be motivated for change – you can support and encourage them through this journey.

  • Talk about the benefits of change, what they want to change and how this can happen. How can they achieve their goals? If they don’t think they can stop completely, could they consider reducing how much or how often they use drugs and/or alcohol?
  • Monitor changes in their mood and how they interact with others. If you notice changes, talk to them about what’s happening and any professional help they might need.
  • Help them identify things they can do when they’re stressed, anxious or feeling down so that they’re less likely to rely on drugs and alcohol – call a friend to talk, go for a run or listen to music.
  • Encourage them to hang out with friends who don’t drink alcohol or use drugs.
  • Talk about how you can support them through this change: “How can we help/support each other?”
  • Have realistic expectations. There are going to be some ups and downs; accept these and support your young person to get back on track.
  • Seek advice from drug and alcohol services about how you can approach the situation.
  • Have your own support network to help you maintain your own health and wellbeing.

Helping young people stay safe

Whether a young person has just started or is trying to stop using drugs and alcohol, it’s important to encourage them to use safely. You could encourage them to:

  • learn about the impact of drugs and alcohol – sit down together and do some online research
  • limit how much they are using, whether it is alcohol or other drugs. Talk with them about setting a limit and sticking to it
  • identify and avoid situations where they know they will use drugs or alcohol
  • stay with friends when using in case they need help
  • eat prior to and while drinking alcohol
  • have drug and/or alcohol free days
  • use clean and hygienic tools to minimise the risk of infections and disease
  • tell their doctor about their use, particularly if they are being prescribed any medication, in case of any harmful interactions
  • talk with someone about their drug and alcohol use – they could try online, over the phone or face to face services
  • look after their general wellbeing – maintain a healthy diet, get regular sleep and exercise.



1 White, V. and Smith, G. (2008). Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2008. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 (4326.0). Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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