Between drug use epidemics and record binge drinking, American society is clearly – and collectively – going through a rough patch. At the same time, 90% of US adults say the country is “experiencing a mental health crisis.” But which came first, the substance abuse or the mental health woes? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complicated but worth exploring, especially for employers.

Drug and Alcohol Use in America

21.4% of people 12 and older used drugs illegally in the last year, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. That includes using illicit drugs as well as misusing prescription drugs. The Center also notes that 50% of people 12 and older “have used illicit drugs at least once.” In terms of alcohol use, a recent Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans age 18+ report drinking and 28.6 million of those have developed an Alcohol Use Disorder.

With approximately one-fifth of the population doing drugs illegally and three-fifths drinking alcohol, problems at home, school, and work are bound to arise. Drug and alcohol consumption has a wide array of consequences for users, their loved ones, co-workers, and for society in general. In addition to physical consequences, there are debilitating mental health and quality of life repercussions.

How Much Drug and Alcohol Use is "Safe"?

People use drugs and alcohol for different reasons, but studies indicate the most common are: “to feel good, stop feeling bad, or to perform better in school or work.” The irony is that drugs and alcohol can often make things worse, not better. Regardless of the initial reasons for using them, eventually, the effects of drug and alcohol use catch up to users and harm them in ways they never intended…and often struggle to recover from. 

It’s no secret that drugs and alcohol can be highly addictive, resulting in users needing to consume more to achieve similar results as they once had. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance and requires increasingly unsafe levels of drug and/or alcohol consumption. Users may switch up their drug or drink of choice in search of that ever illusive high. People may behave increasingly desperate, and the result is a downward spiral into complete demoralization if left unchecked.

It goes without saying that many people drink alcohol in moderation and exhibit no adverse effects. There are also people who live with chronic pain and use prescription drugs as one option in their pain management regime. Nonetheless, it is a fine line when managing pain with narcotic medications for any length of time without becoming drug dependent. 

Adverse Effects of Alcohol Use & Abuse

With alcohol, the physical consequences of use may include high blood pressure, increased risk of heart and liver disease, increased risk of certain types of cancer, digestive problems, stroke, cardiomyopathy, obesity, and a weakened immune system that leaves the user more susceptible to illness.

Even red wine, which has enjoyed a reputation for years as being “heart healthy” is getting a closer look from the medical establishment. Hopkins Medicine concedes that it is debatable if red wine in moderation is good for your heart. Red wine does contain resveratrol, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but it’s possible to get the same benefits from drinking non-alcoholic red wine and certain grape juices, eating berries, or taking over-the-counter supplements.

Many people drink to feel temporarily more relaxed, but how they actually feel varies from relaxed or happy to feeling moody, nostalgic, afraid, lonely, resentful, irritable, sad, angry, ashamed, guilty, antisocial, and even destructive. At what point these negative feelings kick in varies depending on the situation. For example, a person’s mood just prior to consuming alcohol can affect how they feel during and after they drink.

Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, the negative effects creep up on most users without them realizing how deeply their wellness is being affected. The Priory Group outlined The Benefits of Giving up Alcohol for a Month to demonstrate the impact alcohol has on one’s life, and how quickly it can be reversed to boost mood, concentration, memory, and quality of sleep. That’s in addition to several physical benefits such as weight loss, better hydration, lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, and stomach upset.

But when drinkers don’t stop, the long-term use of alcohol can alter brain activity permanently, causing memory problems and contributing to mental health troubles such as depression and anxiety. Those who develop an Alcohol Use Disorder may go through an array of mental health issues related to their mood, behavior, and psychological state, especially when they’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms. People with AUD become stuck in a cycle, where they need to drink to manage symptoms caused by their addiction to drinking

Adverse Effects of Drug Use & Abuse

As far as drugs go, the harm done to mental health and wellness varies widely because of the volume of drugs available. Per DrugBank, there are a total of 15,419 different drugs in existence as of this writing.

From a law enforcement perspective, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recognizes seven broad drug categories. The drug categories—and some of their most common effects—are:

  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants (effects include: slower brain/body functionality, confusion, mild depression):
    • Alcohol
    • Anti-anxiety tranquilizers (Valium, Xanax, Prozac, Thorazine)
    • Antidepressants (Zoloft, Paxil)
    • Barbiturates
    • GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate
    • Rohypnol
  • CNS stimulants (effects include: rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure; nervousness, anger, anxiety)
    • Amphetamines
    • Cocaine
    • Crack
    • Methamphetamine
  • Hallucinogens (effects include: paranoia, disorganized thinking, mood swings)
    • LSD
    • MDMA
    • Peyote
    • Psilocybin
  • Dissociative anesthetics (effects include: altered sense of reality; sense of panic or paranoia; anger and aggression)
    • Dextromethorphan
    • PCP
  • Narcotic analgesics (effects include: sedation, respiratory depression, fatigue, dizziness)
    • Codeine
    • Heroin
    • Methadone
    • Morphine
    • Opium
    • Oxycontin
    • Vicodin
  • Inhalants (effects include confusion, lethargy, stupor, lack of coordination, headaches)
    • Gasoline
    • Hair spray
    • Paint/paint thinners
    • Plastic cement
    • Toluene
  • Cannabis (marijuana) (effects include: euphoria, altered sensory perception, dizziness, fatigue)
    • Includes synthetics like Dronabinol

It would take an entire book to review all the potential mental health and emotional well-being risks related to the above drug categories. Not all drug users report adverse effects; however, this is often because they are simply unaware of the gradual long-term changes taking place. Those who develop a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) are likely to become defensive and resist admitting they have an addiction, which can lead to guilt, feelings of resentment, and hostility.

There is a well-researched connection between SUD and mental illness. Indeed, studies have shown that “about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.” This circumstance is known as comorbidity. Many substance abusers consume more than one drug at a time or consume drugs and alcohol together, thus increasing the risk of developing comorbidity. For those with such combined conditions, the additional risk of chronic physical health problems can lead to a trimorbidity, a debilitating scenario common among adults experiencing homelessness.