Factsheet: Drugs & Alcohol and Mental Health

This factsheet is available in a downloadable PDF here. 

Table of Contents

Why do People use Substances?
Substance Misuse, Mental Health and Suicide
Treatment Options


Having mental health problems and using substances are often related.  Evidence shows that people who have a diagnosis of a mental illness are much more likely to miuse drugs or alocohol than the general public.  Likewise, people who regularly misuse substances are much more likely to have mental health problems than the general public.

In a situation where a person has both mental health problems and misuses substances the individual is affected by the symptoms of both, and also the symptoms from each may interact with one another, making things worse.  in medical rems, having both mental health and substance miuse problems is often called ‘dual diagnosis’.


Why do People use Substances?

The reasons why people use drugs or alocohol can be very varied as it is a very individual thing.  Some people may find that using substances to improve thier image, because of peer pressure, or to help them get through the day.  Others may find a sense of community and belonging among other users.  People can also use it as a way of escaping from the pressures of their life.  Either way, it can be very easy for substance use to become a viscious cycle whereby using creates problems, and so more substances are used to escape these.

There is a large variety of substances poeple use, both legal and illegal, which can be linked to mental health problems.

For more detailed information on drugs, including the serious physical risks of using some substances, please go to the Know the Score website.


Substance Misuse, Mental Health and Suicide

Research has shown there is a clear link between using high levels of drugs or alcohol and having a higher chance of experiencing poor mental health. The reasons for this are less clear, but are most likely a combination of the long-term chemical effects of substances on the brain, the other consequences of drug addiction on mental health (such as homelessness, loss of friends and family etc.) and people using drugs as a way to cope with mental illness.

People who have substance misuse problems are also more likely to attempt, and commit, suicide than people who do not. For example, in Scotland people diagnosed with alcohol misuse disorder are ten times more likely to kill themselves than the general public. When combined with mental health difficulties, the risk of suicide rises even further. It is also important that drugs or alcohol are very often involved when people who have had thoughts of suicide do go through with it. Depression combined with drug or alcohol addiction are commonly seen together when people commit suicide.

For more information on the specific effects of individual drugs on mental wellbeing, please visit Know the Score A-Z of drugs or Talk to Frank A-Z of drugs.


With the right support people can and do recover from mental health and drug & alcohol problems.  There are lots of ideas about what recovery means, but the key things to remember are:

  • People can and do recover
  • Recovery is a process through which an individual can move on from their problem drug or use
  • Recovery means moving towards a drug or alcohol free life as an active member of society
  • Recovery means moving towards a fulfilling and satisfying life in the presence or absence of symptoms
  • Recovery involves taking responsibility for your own situation
  • No two people’s recovery journey will be the same

More and more services in Scotland are focussing on Recovery as a guide.  The Scottish Government has also published strategies for mental health and drug and alcohol misuse that focus on recovery, such as ‘The Road to Recovery‘ and ‘Towards and Mentally Flourishing Scotland‘. 

Treatment Options

Treatment can be difficult for people with both substance and mental health problems as their problems are foten complex and have developed over many years.  There can also be significant barriers to receiving treatment.  For example, mental health establishments may not assess and admit someone while they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  However, services are increasingly aware that both issues may need to be treated at the same time.  

These are some of the services that may be able to help:

GPs – Most often the first point of contact for people seeking treatment is their doctor.  GPs can offer a variety of medical treatments that can help with substance misuse and mental health problems, such as medications to help people detox or to help with mental health symptoms.  They can also refer patients to a large range of other treatmens such as inpatient care, therapies and other medical specialists.

Community Mental Health Teams – These usually consist of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, occupational therapists, and psychologists and they help people to manage their mental health problems in the community. They offer services like home visits from a community psychiatric nurse (CPN), or therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy.  They are usually accessed through a referral from a GP or other medical service.

Inpatient Treatment – This could be in a mental health ward and is used to treat more severe or complex mental health problems as well as the physical symptoms that can be caused by withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.

Treatment can be planned or as necessary when a person needs urgent mental health treatment.  Referrals from medical services or self presentation ot a mental health assessment services (MHAS) are routes to access this service.

Therapies – There are many kinds of talking therapies available that could help with these issues.  Medical services can often offer things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Dialectal Behavioural Therapy (DBT) that can help people understand and change why and how they act.

Many services also offer one-to-one counselling to help people deal with their problems.  This could be specific alcohol/drug counselling or counselling to help people move on from trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, and are sometimes offered by NHS services, charity organisations and also privately.

Groups – People often find groups very helpful in recovering from mental health and substance misuse problems as they can be a place to share experiences or to do activities with others with similar experiences.  they can be in a variety of settings from the hospital to the community.  Some have certain approaches such as the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) people must progress through the 12 steps with the support of the group.  Others are things like waking, drama or writing groups that are often provided in the community by public sector or charity organisations.

Related Services

Below are links to Services in the Edspace database that may be of interest:

External websites related to Drugs & Alcohol and Mental Health

These web sites may be useful. Please note that we are not responsible for external sites; if you find any broken links or inappropriate content please report it to the site administrators using the feedback page.

  • Know the score
    Know the score information line for the general public in Scotland providing facts about drugs and their effects Phone: 0800 587 5879 Hours: Seven days a week 24 hours a day www.knowthescore.info/
  • Alcoholics Anonymous
    Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an informal fellowship, founded in 1935. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organisation or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. The primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
    TALK TO FRANK (National Drugs Helpline) For information and advice on all aspects of drug misuse and referrals to local agencies. The helpline operated 24 hours round the clock. www.talktofrank.com The helpline is also available on request on 0800 917 6650 in the following languages: Bengali between 6-10pm every Monday Urdu between 6-10pm every Tuesday Hindi between 6-10pm every Friday Punjabi between 6-10pm every Saturday Cantonese between 6-10pm every Sunday Phone: 0800 77 66 00 Hours: 24 hours - 365 days a year. Please note that a range of different languages are catered for at set opening times.

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