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Substances Sneaking Up On You

By Tasha Broomhall

Many Australians use substances recreationally: alcohol, illicit drugs, over the counter or prescription medications being used for non-medicinal purposes. Substance use disorder affects 5.1% of Australian adults every year and 4.3% of this relates to alcohol. [1]

Many people use alcohol within safe limits, however for others, alcohol use has become problematic and once alcohol use has grown to addiction, the person is down the rabbit hole – in a whole new world that can prove incredibly challenging to escape.

Substance Use Disorder

For many people who do develop an addiction, whether it be to alcohol, or other substances, it started as a coping mechanism, as an escape, or social use which became unmanageable. However, we don’t always recognise the maladaptive use until it has spiralled out of control and is now dominating our lives. For some, this will be a private use, and they live with secrecy and shame. For others it’s big, and loud, and public.

Many people in our society use substances – in some industries and community groups it’s almost a rite of passage. However, just because someone uses substances it doesn’t mean that they have a substance use disorder.

Substance use disorder is where a person:

  • is using substances in a way that causes harm to their physical or mental health;
  • has dependence on the substance (physically or psychologically); and
  • where their substance use negatively affects their functioning [2]

In many areas of our society it is socially acceptable to use substances and sometimes it is almost expected. This can lead to people using more and more while not necessarily being aware of the patterns and effects of their use.

Often co-occurs with anxiety and depressive disorders

Substance use disorders often co-occur with anxiety and depressive disorders – sometimes the person with the anxiety or depression is using substances to self-medicate and, at other times, the overuse of substances can lead to or exacerbate anxiety and depression. It is important to know that if a person is experiencing these disorders co-occurring, they should get treatment for all of the conditions to optimise their chances of recovery.

Coping strategy

In my work I observe many men and women reporting alcohol use as a coping strategy for the stress which builds up managing their multiple roles, and as a way to get through the week. Others report they use it for anger, anxiety, boredom, fear, frustration or shyness.

Using alcohol as a coping mechanism is very risky. Memes about “it’s wine o’clock somewhere” normalise the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism by encouraging others to have a drink to get over a bad day. However alcohol may numb, but it doesn’t actually help us. Not in the short term or long term in terms of our mental wellbeing.

Individuals and organisations can tackle alcohol misuse by proactively developing healthy coping strategies to use, rather than relying on alcohol, and to become a more conscious consumer and supplier of alcohol.

Advice for individuals

  • Have a list of go to strategies for managing stress and then use alcohol separately to managing stress
  • Do a self-audit of your alcohol use. Measure your consumption and track it against safe drinking guidelines (see link in resources). By bringing consciousness to your consumption you can see how you may be able to moderate use. If you are not able to moderate your use by yourself, have a chat with your GP about your options

Advice for workplaces and social events

  • Any social events which serve alcohol should also have plenty of delicious non-alcoholic drinks as well
  • Have servers who provide the drinks. If all the options are low alcohol and presented in generic glassware, people will likely still enjoy themselves without getting as intoxicated.


Australian Government Alcohol Guidelines

Alcohol and Drug Foundation (lists state and national services)

Smart Recovery Australia (SMART – Self Management and Recovery Training)

Western Australia:

08 9416 4444

Dawson Cooke (Clin Psych)
Family Works


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results. (Document 4326.0) Canberra: ABS; 2008.
  2. Kitchener, B., Jorm, T., & Kelly, C. (2017). Mental health first aid manual (4th ed.). Melbourne: Mental Health First Aid Australia.

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