Drugs, alcohol and mental health

Drugs and alcohol change the way your brain and body work – find out why this is important for your mental health.

This article was written in consultation with Beyond Blue. Medibank and Beyond Blue are working together to empower all people in Australia to be better connected with knowledge, resources and support to improve their mental health and wellbeing. For further information from Beyond Blue on drugs, alcohol and mental health please click here.

Drugs, alcohol and mental health

What comes first, the mental health issue or drug and alcohol problem?

It can be tough to tell because people often use drugs and alcohol to deal with depression and anxiety. It can make an existing problem worse.

Jump to section: Signs and symptomsIdentifying a problemCutting back | TreatmentGetting support

According to The National Health and Medical Research Council, several standard alcoholic drinks may have different and more severe effects on a person with depression than on someone without it. Research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found a strong link between illicit drug use and mental health issues.

Drugs and alcohol can be addictive, and difficult to quit, and recovery may be challenging.

It’s vital to understand the link between mental health and drug and alcohol problems so you can change your habits, get the right support and access the right treatments to improve your physical and mental wellbeing

The earlier you get help the better, but it’s never too late.

Signs and symptoms 

According to Beyond Blue, over 500,000 Australians will experience depression and a substance use disorder at the same time, at some point in their lives – it can happen to anyone.

Signs of depression include a feeling of sadness or miserable thoughts that last, on average, for more than two weeks, as well as noticeable changes in behaviour or regular routines. It’s normal to feel flat from time to time, life is supposed to ebb and flow, but if these feelings last for an extended period, they may be a sign of depression.

Beyond Blue has a confidential depression and anxiety checklist to measure how you’re feeling, or you can schedule an appointment with a GP.

Over time, you may become more reliant on substances to deal with an underlying issue.

Are you finding it hard to control how much you use?

It is important to be aware of what drugs you are taking and how much you are drinking. Drug and alcohol dependency happens when substances are used excessively to cope with physical pain or difficult situations such as grief, loss, anxiety or trauma. For alcohol, the Australian Guidelines suggest drinking no more than 4 standard drinks per day (maximum of 10 weekly) to reduce the impact of alcohol on your physical and mental health.

Start asking yourself questions like why do you use drugs and alcohol? How often are you using drugs or alcohol? Are you finding it hard to control how much you use?

The answers will help highlight whether you are developing a problem.

Other signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • altered mood or behaviour
  • changes to appetite
  • altered energy levels or libido
  • issues managing work, finances and relationships
  • intense urges for a substance or a need for more
  • cutting back on social or other activities
  • lying to people about alcohol or drug use when they ask
  • doing things that are illegal to get the substance, such as stealing
  • taking risks such as driving when you are under the influence of the substance head
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop taking the substance.

Read more about mental health and substance use.

group of people chinking glasses to say cheers

Cutting back

If you think drugs or alcohol are affecting your mental health, reducing the amount you use, and how often, is a good start.

Try the following tips:

  • Don’t drink alone
  • Attend social gatherings where drugs and alcohol won’t be present.
  • Don’t keep drugs or alcohol at home
  • Try non-alcoholic drinks as an alternative
  • If you decide to drink, limit yourself to one drink per hour
  • Try not to take drugs or drink when you are feeling down or anxious.

It’s important to let your friends and family know that you are trying to make a change and ask for their support. The people who know you’re trying to cut back will be able to be more mindful of your situation and support you along the way. Every little bit helps.


If you’ve tried cutting back but are still experiencing negative effects from drugs or alcohol, the next step is treatment.

The goal of treatment for drug and alcohol dependency is to help reduce the use of substances, or to help reduce the harm to yourself. Treatment is based on a person’s specific needs.

Make an appointment with a GP to discuss the options. A GP can also set up a mental health care plan, which may include a referral to see a psychologist.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation has the contact numbers for treatment services in each state and territory.

Where to get help

The best place to start is by speaking to your GP or health practitioner. They will be able to assess your individual situation and recommend the best next steps for your recovery.

Our team of mental health professionals are here to support you on our 24/7 Mental Health Phone Support line. It’s available to Medibank members with hospital cover 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 644 325~.

If at any point you feel like someone’s life is in danger, seek immediate help. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for crisis support and call 000 if you believe that someone’s life is in danger.

For more support and information

Alcohol and Drug Foundation

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Further reading

Cropped shot of a group of teen girls sitting on a wooden jetty drinking bottles of a pink alcoholic beverage

Is your child drinking too much?

Young adults tend to be more at risk of binge drinking. How to tell if it's a problem, and what to do about it.

Is your drinking causing you hangxiety?

Hangover + anxiety = hangxiety

What it is, why it happens, and what to do about it.   

Seeking help: the basics                         

Where to go for help to navigate a mental health issue.

Sad young man looking through the window

Learning to cope with intense feelings

Learn how to step back, have all your emotions, and choose your behaviour. 

Looking for something else?

Visit our Medibank Better Minds homepage to find more tools and services.

Talk to us about your cover and accessing services 

Contact Medibank when and how it suits you: online 24/7, in-store, by phone or through the My Medibank app.

Things you need to know

~ OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

# Check your cover summary to see if these services are included on your extras cover and if annual limits apply.  Counsellors must be registered with Australian Counselling Association, Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, Australian Traditional Medicine Society.   

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).