Checking alcohol and drugs

Using alcohol or other drugs to ‘self-medicate’ stress and emotional problems is a widely accepted part of student (and wider) culture, but can often cause problems. Realistic strategies for addressing problematic alcohol and drug use are an important strategy for combating depression.

Making it worse not better

Do you self medicate with alcohol or drugs, including nicotine or overuse of caffeine? If so, you know you’re not alone! Heavy alcohol use, in particular, is entrenched in student and wider UK culture. This creates a win-win situation for depression – excessive alcohol and drug consumption is likely to make you feel worse not better, and a recent study of UK students* showed that not drinking can also lead to isolation and depression. Even low-level drugs, like nicotine and caffeine, can contribute to depression by making sleep problems worse.


Small quantities of alcohol do initially briefly lift mood levels BUT larger amounts of alcohol tend to have a chemically depressive effect. Our bodies learn to tolerate alcohol, so greater and greater quantities are needed to provide the brief mood lift.

When heavy alcohol use is seen as ‘normal’ some of the real dangers are less recognised. Heavy alcohol consumption comes with many other risks in addition to depression:

Alcohol is known to compromise judgement. Have you ever noticed how opinions become more extreme when drunk? In other words, alcohol makes you more prone to all-or-nothing and other types of depressed thinking.

Alcohol loosens inhibitions and increases impulsivity, raising the risk that someone might impulsively enact suicidal thoughts or behave in other self-harming or risky ways.

Drinking heavily to try to get to sleep makes things worse, because alcohol disrupts quality sleep and makes sleep problems worse in the long run. Alcohol can also interact unfavourably with antidepressant medication.


Drug use is built into cultural practices through rituals such as tea and coffee drinking – and heavy use is increasingly promoted through caffeine-based ‘soft’ drinks. Even these culturally-accepted drugs can potentially contribute to depression, through their effect on sleep. Similarly, in addition to the obvious long-term health risks, nicotine disrupts healthy sleep.

Cannabis has an outdated reputation as a relatively ‘safe’ drug, yet there is increasing evidence that cannabis use can trigger psychotic episodes and severe mental illness for some people. Heavy cannabis use can lead to loss of drive and motivation, irritability, insomnia, reduced appetite, anxiety problems and depression. Even with mild use, cannabis tends to intensify whatever mood the person is in – which is not great when you’re affected by depression!

Besides the obvious perils of addiction, heavy use of other drugs such as opioids (heroin etc), amphetamines (and related drugs), cocaine, ecstasy and LSD all have potential risks in withdrawal of lowering of mood and triggering depression, as well as of suicidal thoughts.

It is not possible to predict whether or when you might experience withdrawal effects, but if you are already affected by depression, especially suicidal thoughts, then these drugs are obviously especially risky.

When heavy drinking or drug taking is a cultural norm and there is a lot of pressure to conform, then not participating can be isolating – another contribution to depression.

Realistic strategies

Unless you have a serious addiction problem or your doctor has advised abstinence there is no need to be all-or-nothing about it – just make realistic goals for cutting down your consumption:

  • There is no need to stop socialising! It can help to broaden your social activities – try to engage in some social activities which do not involve alcohol or drugs.
  • On a night out, give yourself a budget for the night and only take that amount of cash with you.
  • Stick with friends who do not pressurise each other too much and get your friends to support you in cutting down (you don’t have to give your reasons)
  • If necessary work on building up new, constructive friendships and support networks.
  • As a general strategy, you may want to take a step back and evaluate what role drug and alcohol habits play in student and wider culture and whether you wish to continue to sign up to the values this perpetuates.

Get help for addiction

If you do feel that you may have a problem with addiction, seek professional help from a specialist drug and alcohol agency (your doctor or counselling service can advise).

Next: Practising relaxation

Take Action

Alcohol/drugs checker


Taking care of yourself
Build support networks
Consulting doctors and counsellors