Drugs and mental health
All drugs can have an effect on your mental health. They can change your mood and behaviour. For some people, taking drugs can lead to long-term mental health problems.
*Last updated: 14 September 2021
When we talk about drugs on this page, we’re referring to recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin, as well as alcohol, tobacco and some prescribed medicines if they are misused. Drugs may be legal, illegal or a controlled substance (only legal if you have a prescription for them).
Why do people take drugs?
People take drugs for many different reasons. You may begin out of curiosity, rebelliousness, or because your friends take them. You may enjoy taking them and want to repeat the experience. You may take drugs when you’re unhappy, stressed or trying to cope with problems in your life. If you have a mental health diagnosis, you may use drugs to help you cope with the symptoms.
Drugs can act as a temporary prop to get you through difficult times. However, drugs can make difficult feelings and emotions even worse. And in the long term, any feelings of relief won’t last. You may find yourself using more and more drugs to deal with your problems and risk becoming dependent on them – which can create new problems for you.
How can recreational drugs affect my mental health?
There are different ways drugs can affect your mental health. For some people, taking drugs can lead to long-term mental health problems.
Regular cannabis use can increase your risk of anxiety or depression. There’s also a link between using stronger cannabis and developing psychosis or schizophrenia. The Rethink website has more information on cannabis and mental health.
Stimulant drugs can make you feel depressed, anxious and paranoid. Cocaine – a type of stimulant – can make previous mental health problems recur and trigger psychosis and schizophrenia. Ecstasy users can experience memory problems.
Hallucinogenic drugs such as magic mushrooms can make any mental health issues worse. They can make you feel detached from your surrounding and cause flashbacks, which can be frightening or distressing.
If you take medication, mixing it with alcohol or drugs can be dangerous or even fatal. Mind has more information about the possible effects of mixing different drugs.
You may feel you’re no longer in control of your drug use or that you need to take more and more of it to feel an effect. If so, you could be becoming addicted. Drug addiction is linked to mental health problems.
Taking any drug can be dangerous. The Frank website has more information about how different drugs can affect your mental and physical health.
If your drug use is affecting your mental health, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can either speak to your GP or contact a local NHS drug treatment service. If you’re having trouble finding the right sort of help, visit the Frank website for free practical advice.
Be honest about your drug use. It may be difficult to talk about, but your treatment is likely to be more successful if your doctor or support worker has all the information about what you take, how often and how it affects you.
You may be offered talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s unlikely you’ll be offered medication for any mental health problems caused by your drug use: for example, antidepressants won’t help with depression caused by taking ecstasy, and anti-psychotics won’t help with psychosis caused by cannabis use. But if you already had a mental health problem before you started taking drugs, you may be given medication to treat it.
You may be offered help from drug treatment services to stop taking drugs or alcohol.
What does dual diagnosis mean?
If you have a severe mental health problem and misuse drugs, you may be given a ‘dual diagnosis’. It may be that your mental ill-health led to your drug misuse or the other way round, or they might not have been related.
If you have a dual diagnosis, mental health services should be in charge of your treatment rather than drug treatment services. They can refer you to other help you may need with housing, benefits or employment, for example.
There may be a dual diagnosis team in your area. If not, ask your GP to refer you to your local community mental health team (CMHT).
Some people with a dual diagnosis find it hard to get the help they need. For example, you may have been told that you can’t access mental health support because of your drugs problem. However, the government guidance is clear: mental health services should try to help you if you have a drug problem. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also says you shouldn’t be turned away from mental health support.
If you’re turned away by your mental health team, ask why. Ask if they have an eligibility policy – you may be able to use this to show you qualify for help. Otherwise go back to your GP and ask for help.
Rethink has more information about accessing help with a dual diagnosis.