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A guide for young people Drugs and alcohol

There are many reasons why someone might drink alcohol or take drugs. Read this guide for the facts on drugs and alcohol, how they can affect your mental health, and advice on what to do if you need support.

a girl with shaved head wearing with shirt and black trousers looking on the ground thinking while she lean on a green brick wall

A drug is any chemical that you take in – whether as a pill, a liquid, a powder or in another form – which can affect the way you think, feel and act. This includes alcohol – although we often don’t think of it as such, alcohol is a drug.

A drug can be something legal and commonly used, like headache tablets. However, generally when we talk about drugs, we mean illegal drugs or drugs that people take for enjoyment or any other non-medical reason. (When drugs are used in this way, they are sometimes referred to as “recreational drugs”.)

Why do people drink or take drugs?

There are lots of different reasons why people might take drugs or drink alcohol. It might be:

  • to fit in with a group or appear popular
  • to see what it feels like
  • because they feel like they should, or they feel pressure to do it
  • to distract from difficult thoughts or feelings, or to try to make these feelings go away
  • to feel more confident or able to talk to people

Whatever the reason someone drinks alcohol or takes drugs, it doesn’t make them a bad person. But there are laws around drugs and alcohol; and drinking alcohol or taking drugs can have a negative effect on your mental and physical health, so it’s important to know the facts and be aware of the risks.

The risks

  • When you take drugs, there is always some risk involved. This is because drugs can affect different people in different ways, and it can be hard to know exactly what you are taking, as you often don’t know where the drugs have come from. For more information about how different drugs can affect you, and the risks that come with different drugs, the Frank website is a really good place to start.

What are the laws around drugs and alcohol?

Recreational drugs (drugs that people take for non-medical purposes) fall into one of three groups:

  • Legal

    e.g. alcohol and nicotine (cigarettes or vapes)

    These are drugs that you can buy legally, though there may be laws around who can buy them. This includes alcohol and nicotine, but also over-the-counter medication like headache tablets.

    You must be 18 or over to buy alcohol or nicotine products in the UK. However, if you’re 16 or 17 and accompanied by an adult, you can drink (but not buy) beer, wine or cider with a meal.

  • Illegal

    e.g. cocaine, heroin, marijuana etc.

    These are drugs that are against the law to have, use or provide to other people.

  • Controlled

    e.g. diazepam, methylphenidate, dexamfetamine etc.

    These are drugs that are used in medicine and might be given to you by a doctor, but are illegal to have or use if you don’t have a prescription for them. It is also illegal to give or sell controlled drugs to anybody else. Your doctor should tell you if they prescribe you a controlled drug.

A father comforts his son at the table

If you choose to take illegal drugs, remember it can lead to a criminal conviction, which could end up affecting things in your future, like getting a job. And if you’re under 18, it’s against the law to buy (or try to buy) alcohol, or to drink alcohol in licensed premises like restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs, other than in the circumstances explained above.

You can find out more on the Government’s website:

Drugs penalties

Alcohol and young people

Can you get in trouble for telling someone that you’ve taken drugs or drunk alcohol underage?

When you talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional, everything you tell them is confidential – this means that they will not tell anyone else unless you agree otherwise, or they feel that you are in danger of harming yourself or others (if this is the case, they will always try to let you know first). However, if you are under 16 and a doctor or healthcare worker suspects that you are being abused or that you are in danger, they have to report that.

But if you tell them you’ve voluntarily taken drugs or drunk alcohol underage, they will not report you to the police. In fact, if you think that you have any kind of issue with drugs or alcohol, it’s really important that you tell your doctor so that they can help.

How can drugs and alcohol affect my mental health?

a boy lost in thoughts while sitting on the couch with friends sitting beside him talking to each other

Drugs and alcohol can affect your mental health in different ways. The effect they might have can depend on a number of things, such as:

  • the drug you take
  • how much you take
  • how frequently you take it
  • how you’re feeling at the time
  • the environment you take it in

In the short term, while you’re still feeling the effects of drinking alcohol or taking drugs, you may feel:

  • happy
  • excited
  • energetic
  • relaxed
  • sociable, or like it’s easier to talk to people
  • tired
  • sad
  • anxious
  • paranoid
  • impulsive, or less worried about doing things you wouldn’t do normally
  • out of control

Even once the alcohol or drug wears off, it can still have an effect on your mental health. You may find that you feel:

  • sad
  • anxious
  • tired
  • paranoid
  • spaced out

As some drugs such as alcohol make you feel more relaxed, outgoing and sociable, some people use them to help with anxiety in the short term. While this may help reduce feelings of anxiety in the moment, it can have negative long-term effects. For example, you may find that you start to feel as though you “need it” to cope in these situations in future; it may make feelings of anxiety or depression worse once the effects have worn off; or it may make you physically ill.

If you are struggling with anxiety, it is important to get help so that you can develop coping mechanisms that work for you in both the short term and the long term.

For advice on coping with anxiety, have a look at our guide.

Guide to anxiety

Using drugs and alcohol can make any mental health problems you struggle with worse in the long term, and it can even lead you to develop new mental health problems. For example, regular use of cannabis has been linked to the development of psychosis.

If you take drugs regularly, you might reach a point where you feel like the drug is in control of you, rather than the other way around. Maybe you’re using it in private, away from friends, and your life revolves around getting more of it. Or perhaps drugs and alcohol are becoming the main things you think about. If so, you could be getting addicted, and addiction is closely linked with mental health problems.

Drugs, alcohol and mental health medication

  • If you take medication for your mental health, it may change the way that drugs and alcohol affect you. We have more information on our medication pages, but please speak to your doctor for any medical advice.

How to tell if you have a problem with drugs or alcohol

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It can be hard to recognise when you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, as this can develop over time without you noticing. Below are some common signs that you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

  • You feel like your drug or alcohol use is no longer under your control, and that you cannot cope without it – you “need” to do it, even if you don’t want to.
  • You build up a tolerance to the drug, meaning you might start to need more and more of it in order to feel the effects.
  • You get withdrawal symptoms when you don’t take it. For example, you might feel sick, anxious or develop a tremor (shakes).
  • You often have unexplained cuts and bruises, blackouts, confusion and difficulty remembering what happened while drinking or on drugs.
  • You are feeling secretive and ashamed about what you are doing, or doing it in private or on your own.

What to do if you're struggling with drugs or alcohol

If you’re at all worried about your drug or alcohol use, whether you think you are addicted or not, it’s important that you reach out for help. Talk to someone you trust about it, whether that’s a friend, parent, teacher or counsellor. If drugs or alcohol are affecting your ability to cope in daily life, then you should see your GP.

This may feel scary, but it is the best way to get help and your doctor won’t judge you.

How to speak to your GP

You are not alone

You may feel like stopping taking drugs or drinking alcohol is impossible, but you can do it and live a happy life without drugs or alcohol with the right support.

Dealing with peer pressure around drugs and alcohol

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When it comes to drugs and alcohol, you may sometimes feel like there is pressure to do something you’re not comfortable with because others want you to. This is called peer pressure. You may feel flattered that people want to drink or take drugs with you, but it can also make you feel:

  • scared
  • worried
  • alone
  • like you need to explain why you aren’t joining in
  • like people will make fun of you or not want to hang around with you if you don’t join in

It’s important to remember that when it comes to drugs and alcohol, the only person who gets to decide what you do is you. It can be difficult saying no, but people who care about you shouldn’t push you to do anything you’re uncomfortable with.

Frank have ten tips for dealing with peer pressure on their website:

Frank's tips for dealing with peer pressure

Childline have a guide to being assertive, which you might also find helpful when you want to say no but you're not sure how.

Childline's guide to being assertive

Top tip from our Activists

  • If your friends often drink alcohol or take drugs, it can sometimes feel like a lot of social activities revolve around that, which can be difficult if you don’t drink or take drugs. To get around this, you could try planning activities that don’t involve these things. This helps to take away the pressure to drink or take drugs, and allows you to find other things that you and your friends enjoy doing together. For example, you could suggest:

    • going to the cinema
    • playing sport
    • cooking or baking
    • going shopping
    • going for a walk
    • playing video games
  • When I felt pressure to drink alcohol, I felt nervous but also worried about what my friends would think if I was the only sober person there.
  • If your friends are trying to pressure you into drinking or taking drugs, they are not people you want to be involved with. Friends don't make you do things that you don't want to do.
  • It is okay not to choose to drink or take drugs, even if a lot of your friends or peers are.

Helping a friend who you think may have a drink or drug problem

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If you think your friend has developed a problem with alcohol or drugs, it can be really hard to know what to do. You may worry that if you say something to them, they’ll be angry at you or start hiding their drink or drug use from you. But you may also worry that if you don’t say anything, their problem might get worse.

The best thing you can do is let them know that you are there for them as a friend, and that they can talk to you if they want to. You could start by letting them know that you’re worried they may have a problem, and telling them how their behaviour is affecting you or your friendship. It’s important to let them know that you aren’t judging them, and that you only want to help.

Two young people sit on a bench in a park. The person on the right has his arm around the other young person. The young person on the left is holding the other persons arm while looking down at the floor.

However, if you don’t feel able to have that conversation, that’s okay too. It is not your responsibility to fix things. Instead, you could try suggesting they use one of the helpline services at the bottom of this page. It’s also a good idea to ask for support from an adult you trust, like a parent, teacher or youth worker. You don’t have to tell them the name of your friend, but if you think they may be in danger, then this can be a good idea. You can let your friend know that you need to talk to an adult and let them know why. Your friend might find this difficult and ask you not to, but they will eventually understand that you want to help them get through this.

For more information and advice on supporting a friend, have a look at our guide.

Supporting a friend with their mental health

Where to get help

See below for a list of organisations and helpline services that can offer you further support.