Drug use disorders

Types of drug problems

People tend to experience problems with drugs when they’re using them too much on a regular basis.

A drug use disorder is when a person’s drug use causes significant distress or harm. If you use drugs on a regular basis, then you may be at risk of developing a drug use disorder. A drug use disorder can range from mild to severe depending on the level of impact of using drugs. Signs of a drug use disorder can include:

  • Spending a lot of time using drugs
  • Can’t stop thinking about drugs
  • Drugs are controlling your life
  • Continuing to use drugs despite a negative impact on your mental or physical health
  • Needing to use more drugs than you once did to get the effect you want
  • Suffering withdrawal symptoms (e.g. trouble sleeping, shakiness, or feeling sweaty or anxious) if you haven’t used drugs for a few hours.

You’re not alone

Around one third of Australians will use illegal drugs at some point in their lives[1], and about 8 percent will develop a drug use disorder[2] . Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug, followed by ecstasy, amphetamines, and cocaine. Misusing prescription medication like pain meds is also common. People who have problems with drug use are often dealing with other issues as well. For example, about a third of Australians who have a drug use disorder also have a drinking problem[3] , and about 15 percent of people who are dependent on cannabis also have depression or anxiety compared to about 5 percent of people who don’t use[4]. Misuse of drugs can cause problems in your relationship or you might notice you’re also drinking more than usual. Some people use drugs as a way blocking out painful memories of a past traumatic experience. Follow the links in the text above for more information about how to manage your feelings without turning to drugs.

Issues for family

Drug problems don’t just affect the person who’s using them; they affect partners, children, and other family members as well. It can be helpful to think about how you can support your loved one as they try and cut down their drug use, and remember that wanting to help doesn’t mean that helping is easy. Sometimes you’ll need some support as well. Find out more about resources and referral options for families. It’s hard to force people to change when they don’t want to. There’s no ‘perfect’ way to talk to a loved one about their drug use, but here are a few tips that might help you:

  • Try not to argue with your loved one about his or her drug use – it may make him or her more determined not to change.
  • Instead of criticising behaviour that’s unhelpful or unhealthy, try and support or encourage behaviours that are helpful or healthy.
  • Feel free to express your opinion, but be prepared to listen when others express theirs.

Drug use and serving members

Drug use has much more immediate and serious consequences for serving members than for the general public. Defence has very strict rules about drug use, and even though help and support for drug problems is available within the military, the consequences of admitting to drug use might discourage you from seeking help. If you’re a serving member and using drugs, the most important thing is to consider your safety and the safety of those around you. Don’t take drugs in situations that could put you or someone else in danger. We don’t always realise the effect that our drug use has on other people, but you have a responsibility to make sure that both you and the people who rely on you are safe. Some people find that making the move from military service to civilian life is really stressful, and they might use drugs to cope with the transition. But if your drug use is making dealing with change more difficult, it might be a sign that you need to take action and get some professional help.

Drug use and older people

It’s fair to say that for most people, use of illegal drugs decreases as we get older. But this doesn’t mean that older people are immune from problems with drug use. It might be more likely that the drugs that older people have problems with will be legal, like pain medication, sleeping pills, and certain types of anti-anxiety medication, but just because something’s prescribed by your GP doesn’t mean there’s no risk of addiction. The other issue with getting older is that making changes to your lifestyle and habits can get harder. The more support you get, from friends, family, and professionals like GPs and counsellors, the greater your chance of success.

What treatments can help me?

If you have tried to cut down or stop using drugs, and are finding it difficult, don’t give up! Help is available, and there are effective treatments and services to get you back on track. These include psychological treatment and medication, as well as inpatient and residential treatment options. It is generally best to start with psychological treatment rather than use medication as the first and only solution to the problem. Talking to your GP is a good place to start if you’re thinking about making changes to your drug use. He or she can help with any relevant medical issues, make referrals for specialists, and if necessary, prescribe medication to help you reduce your drug use. Your GP can also make a referral to specialist counsellors, as well as inpatient services if you need additional help. Many people can manage their drug use with additional support from a counsellor or GP, but it’s important to remember that having a mental health problem at the same time as having problems with drug use makes it harder to change on your own.


There are certain types of counselling that are more effective in helping you get control of your drug use, including:

  • Motivational interviewing – this can help you make decisions about your drug use.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy – this teaches you skills to help cut back, to manage cravings, and to help deal with situations where you’re more likely to take drugs.
  • Behavioural couples therapy or family therapy – helps make sure that the people close to you are supportive while you try to tackle your drug use, especially if they use drugs too.
  • Contingency management – this helps you to stop using drugs by using a reward system.
  • Residential programs or therapeutic communities – these can be helpful for some people with more severe drug use problems

Where do I get help?

  • A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome a drug problem, as he or she can manage any relevant medical issues, make referrals for specialists, and support your efforts with medications if necessary.
  • This website has information on a range of professional care that is available to current and former serving members.

Self-help resources

The High Res website offers a range of interactive tools and self-help resources that help serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families manage stress and build resilience. You can use a number of these tools to help you to reduce your drug use.

Take Action: Improve your Problem Solving skills to reduce your drug use

If you are finding it hard to deal with problems in your life you might be more likely to turn to drugs to cope.

Use the Problem Solving tool to guide you through a step by step process for tackling day-to-day problems to help you to feel calmer and more in control.

When you’re starting out, use the tool to solve a problem that is not too complex. Once you’ve learned the skills you can start to apply the problem solving approach to all sorts of situations as they arise in your day to day life.

Take Action: Build Connections with people who will support you to reduce your drug use

If you are trying to reduce your drug use, it is useful to consider who can support you through this process. Your social supports can help you to feel better and cope with stress.

Use the Social Connections tool to identify the people in your life who can offer you support and the different kinds of support they can offer.

When you’re starting out you can focus on strengthening relationships with people who you really trust and can confide in. Spend time with people who want to support you to reduce your drug use.

This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go. 

Take Action: Manage Your Emotions when you feel like turning to drugs

When you are overwhelmed by strong emotions, it’s difficult to think clearly and stick to your goals for reducing drug use.

Follow the instructions in the Managing Emotions tool to identify your emotions, regain your composure, think about your situation and decide on a helpful course of action.

When you’re starting out, practice using the tool when you are feeling calm. Once you’ve learned the strategies you can use them whenever you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed or thinking about using drugs.

The Emotional Control tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go. 

For extra information and resources, to find out more about the effects and harms of drug use, and to access further support, see the following links:

Dan’s story...

"I never thought I’d be one of those guys with a drug problem. I used to be really fit, used to be at the top of my game at work. Then I got injured in a training accident – stuffed up my back jumping out of a chopper – and all the crap hit me at once. The army were good at first."

Read Dan's full story here.

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Drugs in Australia 2010: Tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. Cat. no. PHE 154. Canberra: AIHW.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results. Cat. no. 4326.0. Canberra: ABS.

[3] Burns, L., & Teesson, M. (2002). Alcohol use disorders comorbid with anxiety, depression and drug use disorders: Findings from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Well Being. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 68, 299-307.

[4] Degenhardt, L., Hall, W., & Lynskey, M. (2001). The relationship between cannabis use, depression and anxiety among Australian adults: Findings from the National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 36, 219-227.