Substance use issues

What are substance use disorders?

There are two main types of ‘substance use disorders’: substance misuse and substance dependence. A substance may be a legal drug, an illegal drug, a prescribed drug (medicine given out by a doctor), or a toxin (poison).

Substance misuse describes when a person experiences harmful or negative consequences when repeatedly taking a substance. These consequences can range from mild (e.g. headache) to severe (e.g. legal problems because of the substance). It is the severe consequences that can lead to someone having a substance misuse problem. It is important to note that the diagnostic guidelines use the term substance ‘abuse’ when talking about people who have a substance misuse problem, but most health professionals now prefer the word ‘misuse’.

Substance dependence describes when a person continues to take a substance over a long period of time even though the behaviour is causing them serious problems. The person will experience a range of cognitive (mental processes), behavioural, and physiological (body) symptoms. They may also build up a tolerance for the substance (need to use more of the substance to get the same effects), and could also experience withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not taken regularly. Withdrawal symptoms are the unpleasant physical and mental effects that occur when the amount of substance in the body begins to drop. Most people who have a substance dependence problem also have a substance misuse problem.

There are many different substances and they can each affect the mind and body in different ways. The types of substances a person may misuse and/or become dependent on, include:

  • licit substances (legal drugs)
    • alcohol (grog)
    • tobacco (durries)
    • pills/medicine (e.g. pain killers)
  • illicit substances (illegal drugs)
    • marijuana/cannabis (gunja, yarndi)
    • heroin (smack)
    • ecstasy (E, eccy)
    • cocaine (coke, crack)
    • amphetamines (speed)
    • pain killers (when not used as intended medically)
  • volatile substances (also called inhalants)
    • solvents, such as glue and petrol
    • gases, such as those found in cigarette lighters
    • aerosols, such as spray paint
    • nitrites, such as those found in room sprays.

People can misuse and/or become dependent on more than one substance.

References and further reading


Key resources

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Untitled by Donna Lei Rioli

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