Booze, pills and mental health

Last year, for the first time, we dedicated an entire month to raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

This became known as #mymentalhealthmatters month and fell between the key dates of 10 September (World Suicide Prevention Day) and 10 October (World Mental Health Day).

The purpose was to engage staff and students in conversations about their own and others’ mental health, and this year we are doing the same.

Cara Durnie is the Alcohol and Drug Officer for Ayrshire College, and as mental health issues are something she regularly comes across in this role, she has written the following post for #mymentalhealthmatters month.


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When I support people who have problems with alcohol or drug use, I would say more often than not mental health problems pop up too. Some have conditions diagnosed by their GP such as depression, anxiety or bipolar. But many haven’t. Everyone has mental health, and depending what our personal circumstances are, it can at times suffer as a result. Things like relationship breakdowns, money troubles or dealing with sexuality can trigger low mood and/or anxiety problems.

As I was once a student myself, I know how stressful college life can be never mind everything else. You’re thrown in with lots of new people, there is the pressure of studying and passing your course, and if you’re anything like I was – you’re always skint! Therefore it’s important that we have good coping strategies in place to help deal with any life pressures and keep ourselves mentally well.

For some, it can be tempting to use alcohol or drugs as a quick fix for their mood or to escape reality for a while.  It can be an especially vicious cycle for those with a history of mental health problems as any type of psychoactive substance – basically all illegal drugs and alcohol – will change the balance of your mood. How much you’re affected depends on how much and how often you are using. Drugs often make people feel good when using them, but the after effects can result in low mood and anxiety. And there might be other negative feelings linked with this like paranoia or agitation. These feelings are what we have come to know as ‘come downs’ and even those with ‘good’ mental health will experience them.

Have you ever had ‘the fear’ after a night of heavy drinking? OK, it could be that you’ve done something really embarrassing, but these feelings are probably exacerbated because of how your alcohol use has disturbed the balance of the feel-good chemicals in your brain.

Upper drugs such as cocaine (coke, charlie) and ecstasy/MDMA (eccies, mandy) work by releasing LOADS of these feel-good chemicals (a.k.a. serotonin and dopamine) in your brain while using. They make people happy and give them energy. If you’re using drugs that bring your mood up that much though, it WILL come back down again. You’ve used up days’ worth of your feel-good chemicals and a result, your brain is low on these for a few days making your mood crash.

Cannabis (green, skunk, weed, hash) is probably the most common substance students approach me about in the College. It’s received a lot of positive attention in the media recently since it has found to have useful properties that we can use in medicines. Well heroin is also very useful in medicine. Properties from this drug are used in the most effective painkillers we have. Now I am not comparing cannabis effects with heroin, but it makes a good point that it doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to use it just because it’s used medicinally.

Cannabis is often not classed as a ‘drug’ and people dismiss it. But I can tell you first hand the impact that it has in some people’s lives. Using every now and then is one thing, but building a tolerance resulting in the use of it daily is quite something else. With such differing types and strains available these days – often much stronger and hallucinogenic – it is feared this is linked to an increase in the number of young people experiencing drug-related mental health problems.

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But there are other ways in which alcohol or drug use affect users’ mental health as commonly reported to me by those I have worked with.  The world of drugs can be one of mistrust. Having to encounter dealers and owing money can be uneasy for some people. There might be paranoia and worry over being caught by the police too, and what if your career depends on a clean criminal record? Often it also affects people’s relationships – people aren’t as reliable as they once were or maybe there are other changes in their personality. Perhaps they are trying to cover up how much and how often they are using alcohol or drugs to those who care about them.

Taking all this into account, you can understand why there is such a strong link between mental health and substance use. Therefore, it’s a good idea that we all have healthy ways to cope with whatever is going on in our lives.

The NHS recommend 5 steps you can take to ensure your mental wellbeing:

  • Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
  • Be active – you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life.
  • Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike?
  • Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.

There are services available to help with substance misuse and/or mental health problems. If you feel you need some extra support you can contact me at student services or by email: Cara.Durnie@ayrshire.ac.uk.

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