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Mental Health Problems and Mind-Body Wellness

Alcohol and Drug Problems

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

The overuse or abuse of alcohol or other drugs is called substance abuse. It is common, costly, and associated with many medical problems.

Alcohol Problems

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A person has an alcohol use problem if he or she continues to drink even though alcohol is interfering with his or her health or daily living. Alcoholism is defined as a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol.

Alcohol abuse patterns vary. Some people get drunk every day. Some drink large amounts of alcohol at specific times, such as weekends. Others may be sober for long periods and then go on drinking binges that last for weeks or months.

Long-term heavy drinking causes liver, nerve, heart, and brain damage; high blood pressure; stomach problems; sexual problems; and cancer. Alcohol abuse can also lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, and difficulties at work, at home, or with the law.

Signs that a person's body is dependent on alcohol include personality changes, blackouts, drinking more and more for the same "high," and denial of the

problem. A person with alcoholism may gulp or sneak drinks, drink alone or early in the morning, and suffer from the shakes. He or she may also have family or work problems or get in trouble with the law due to drinking.

A person whose body is dependent on alcohol may suffer serious withdrawal symptoms (such as trembling, delusions, hallucinations, sweating, and seizures) if he or she stops drinking suddenly. Once alcohol dependency develops, it is very difficult for a person to stop drinking without outside help. Medical detoxification may be needed.

Signs of Drug Use

  • Chronic red eyes, sore throat, dry cough, and fatigue (in the absence of allergies).

  • Major changes in sleeping or eating habits.

  • Moodiness, hostility, or abusive behaviour.

  • Work or school problems, absenteeism.

  • Loss of interest in favourite activities.

  • Social withdrawal or changes in friends.

  • Stealing, lying, and poor family relationships.

Drug Problems

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Drug abuse includes the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other "street drugs," and the abuse of legal prescription drugs. Some people turn to drugs as a way to get a "high" or to deal with stress or emotional problems. A person with a drug addiction will continue to abuse drugs even though drug use is affecting his or her health or daily living.

Tranquilizers, sedatives, pain- killers, and amphetamines are misused most often, sometimes unintentionally.

Drug dependence occurs when a person develops a physical or psychological need for a drug. A person may not be aware that he or she has become dependent on a drug until he or she tries to suddenly stop taking it. Withdrawing from the drug can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as muscle aches, diarrhea, or depression. The usual treatment for drug dependence is to reduce the dose of the drug gradually until it can be stopped completely.


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  • Look for signs of mental stress. Try to understand and resolve sources of depression, anxiety, or loneliness. Don't use alcohol or drugs to deal with these problems.

    Are You a Problem User?

    Answer the following questions honestly. They refer to your use of alcohol and drugs, including prescribed and illegal drugs.

    • Have you ever felt that you ought to cut down on your drinking or drug use?

    • Do you get annoyed at criticism of your drinking or drug use?

    • Do you ever feel guilty about your drinking or drug use?

    • Do you ever take an early morning drink or use drugs first thing in the morning to get the day started or to eliminate the "shakes?"

    A person who answers "yes," "sometimes," or "often" to 2 or more of these questions may have a problem with alcohol or drugs. Call a health professional to arrange for other tests to diagnose alcohol or drug dependence.

  • Educate your children about the effects of alcohol. Children are less likely to use alcohol or other drugs if their parents teach them early (during the elementary school years) about the effects of alcohol.

  • If you drink, do so in moderation: not more than 2 drinks a day for men and not more than 1 drink a day for women. One drink is 360 ml ( 12 oz) of beer, 150 ml (5 oz) of wine, or 45 ml (1.5 oz) of hard liquor.

  • Don't drink alcohol or use drugs if you are pregnant.

  • Ask your pharmacist or doctor if any of your current medications could potentially lead to overuse or dependence. Be especially cautious of painkillers, tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleeping pills. Follow the instructions carefully, and do not exceed the recommended dose.

  • Do not suddenly stop taking any medication without your doctor's supervision.

  • Avoid alcohol when you are taking medications. Alcohol can react with many drugs and cause serious complications.

Home Treatment

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  • Recognize early signs that alcohol or drug use is becoming a problem. See "Are You a Problem User?" on See Are You a Problem User?.

  • Attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (a self-help group devoted to helping members get sober and stay sober).

    If you are concerned about another person's alcohol or drug use:

    • Never ignore the problem. Discuss it as a medical problem.

    • Build up the person's self-esteem and reaffirm his or her value as a person. Help the person see that he or she can be successful without alcohol or drugs. Let the person know you will support his or her efforts to change.

    • Ask if the person will accept help. Don't give up if you get a negative response; keep asking periodically. If the person eventually agrees, act that very day to arrange for help. Call a health professional or Alcoholics Anonymous for an immediate appointment.

    • Attend a few meetings of Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics. Read some 12-step program information.

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If a person loses consciousness after drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

  • If a person who has been drinking alcohol or using drugs threatens to commit suicide.

  • If a person who suddenly stops using alcohol has withdrawal symptoms (trembling, hallucinations, seizures).

  • If you answer "yes," "sometimes," or "often" to 2 or more of the questions under See Are You a Problem User?.

  • If you recognize an alcohol or drug problem in yourself and are ready to accept help. Both outpatient and inpatient treatment programs are available.

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