Drug use disorders

It's common to think of drug-use disorders as affecting only stereotypical drug addicts. But you can be high-functioning, hold down an important job and still be adversely affected by drugs. Not just illegal drugs, but also doctor-prescribed medications. The sooner you seek help the better.

What is a drug-use disorder?

A drug-use disorder is when a person’s drug use causes significant distress or harm to the user or those around them.

If you use drugs on a regular basis, 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
  • thinking about drugs constantly
  • feeling that 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 (such as 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, and about 8 per cent will develop a drug-use disorder. 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, and about 15 per cent of people who are dependent on cannabis also have depression or anxiety compared with about 5 per cent of people who don’t use.

Issues for families

Using illegal drugs, or misusing legal drugs, affects partners, children and other family members.

If you are the partner of someone who regularly uses drugs, it can be helpful to think about how you can support your loved one as they try to reduce their drug use.

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 their drug use; it may make them more determined to keep using.
  • Instead of criticising behaviour that’s unhelpful or unhealthy, try to support or encourage behaviours that are helpful or healthy.
  • Feel free to express your opinion, but make sure you 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 are available within the military, the consequences of admitting to drug use might discourage someone 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 making the move from military service to civilian life overly stressful, and they might use drugs to cope with the transition. But if your drug use is making change more difficult, consider professional help through Open Arms.

Drug use and older people

For most people, the use of illegal drugs decreases as we get older. But this doesn’t mean older people are immune from problems with drug use.

It might be more likely that the drugs 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 lifestyle changes gets 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.

Treatment options 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.

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 behaviour without help.


There are certain types of counselling that could help you get control of your drug use, including:

  • Motivational interviewing can help you make decisions about your drug use.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches skills to help users cut back, manage cravings and deal with situations where they'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 helps you stop using drugs by using a reward system.
  • Residential programs or therapeutic communities can be helpful for some people with more severe drug use problems.

Free and confidential counselling is also available 24/7 through Open Arms - Veterans & Families Counselling. Call 1800 011 046.

Where do I get help?

  • A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome a drug problem. Your GP can manage any relevant medical issues, make referrals for specialists, and support your efforts with medications if necessary..

Self-help resources

Our Self-help tools offer 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.

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.

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.

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

These tools are 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:

  • Australian Drug Foundation provides advice on treatment services and information about drug use.
  • Drug Info is a service of the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) that provides handouts on the effects of illegal drug use and misuse of prescription medication.
  • The World Health Organisation has published a self-help booklet with strategies for cutting down or stopping drug use.
  • Family Drug Support (FDS) provides a 24-hour telephone counselling line to support families affected by alcohol and substance use. Contact FDS on 1300 368 186.


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 story.