Jesuit Social Services
Understanding the Problem

Drug Use

Why Do Young People Use Drugs?
1. A person may or may not be aware of underlying reasons for their drug use.
2. Young people may use drugs for a range of reasons, from developmental reasons to dealing with difficult situations.
3. There is often a lot of fear about giving up drug use when it is familiar and habitual.
4. Experimentation does not necessarily lead on to having a 'drug problem' or 'drug addiction'.
5. What is a problem for one person may not be for another. It is up to the drug user to weigh up the pros and cons of their use and decide if their use is problematic.
6. Families have a right to set boundaries and put strategies in place for their protection.

Understanding the reasons

A person may or may not be aware of underlying reasons for their drug use.

If you think about why you or others may use alcohol, this will give you some idea as to why young people like to use alcohol or other drugs. For example:

  • curiosity
  • like the taste
  • gives a sense of wellbeing or relaxation
  • gives them energy or confidence
  • used as a reward or treat
  • to "fit in" or to be part of a group
  • to help go to sleep
  • because it is exciting to take a risk or be rebellious
  • they have learnt this is normal from others around them

Drugs may also be used to cope with

  • physical or emotional pain
  • traumatic memories
  • other life problems
  • uncomfortable thoughts
  • feelings like stress or anxiety, low self-confidence, loneliness, grief or depression

When alcohol/drug use becomes a habit, or an addiction or dependence develops, reasons for use may become:

  • to feel better
  • to feel normal
  • to avoid withdrawals

There is often a lot of fear about giving up drug use when it is familiar and habitual. A person may keep using as they think:

  • they will be bored or won't know what to do with their time
  • they won't fit in with friends or won't know what to talk to friends about
  • they won't have anything in common with non-users
  • they won't cope emotionally and may feel depressed or anxious
  • they won't be able to get up each day

When is drug use a problem?

Statistics¹ show the age of first use for alcohol or another drug is generally between 15 and 22 years. Approximately one third of young people aged 14-19 years have tried an illegal drug in their lifetime, and one in five have used an illegal drug recently. Marijuana is by far the most common illegal drug used by young people.

Although experimentation can be dangerous and result in accidents, research shows experimentation does not necessarily lead on to having a 'drug problem' or 'drug addiction'.

Different people will have different views about when someone's drug use is a problem. One way is to look at how often or how much of the drug is used.

Drug use can range from:

  • experimental use (trying it out once or twice out of curiosity)
  • recreational/occasional use (e.g. use every few months)
  • situational use (e.g. use to stay awake for something important)
  • regular use (e.g. use every weekend or once a month)
  • bingeing (e.g. may not use often but uses large amounts on occasions)
  • dependence (also called addiction involves frequent use with signs of physical and/or psychological dependence)
  • abstinence (non-use of substance/s)

Another way to explore whether someone's level of drug use is a problematic or not, is to think about the ways drug use impacts on the person's life. Do the 'pros' or good things about use outweigh the 'cons' or bad things?

A person may realise they have a problem with drug use when they experience problems in any of the following areas:

  • Health - physical and mental health effects
  • Relationships - problems with relationships with family and friends, work colleagues, parenting
  • Livelihood - problems with studying, working, or managing finances
  • Legal - problems with the law, such as drink-driving charges, charges for using substances, or other related behaviour such as violence and other criminal behaviour

Different problems motivate different people to make changes to their drug use. Sometimes even legal consequences or health problems don't put people off using drugs. Really, it is up to the drug user to weigh up the pros and cons of their use and decide if their use is problematic.

It is common for a family member to think that their young person has a drug problem and the young person to think, or at least to say, that they don't have a problem.

Families may decide that a member's drug use is a problem for the family, for example, if there is thieving or aggressive behaviour. In this case, it is up to the family to put in place strategies to protect themselves as much as they can from the drug use, e.g. setting boundaries.

There are ways to encourage people to explore the effects of their drug use on themselves and others to motivate them towards change. Alcohol & other drug counsellors use these stategies with drug users. It is sometimes referred to as 'motivational interviewing'.

Formal definitions of drug problems

There are formal definitions used by Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Treatment Services in Victoria for understanding the level of someone's drug use difficulties. There are also other tools or ways to understand and diagnose substance use problems.

The American Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM-4) is used by Psychiatrists and Psychologists in Australia to diagnose mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders and substance abuse problems. (See: Mental Health Problems).

The manual includes a guide for diagnosing drug use according to one of the following categories: Substance Abuse, Substance Dependence and Hazardous Use.

When a person is diagnosed with a mental illness or an intellectual disability as well as a drug problem they are said to have a dual diagnosis. For example, a person may have drug problems and may be diagnosed with a mental illness or Psychiatric Disorder as well. In this case they would need assistance from a health practitioner with expertise in dealing with both issues.

1. The 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, Department of Health and Ageing (pages 5, 23 ­ 25). Copies available free at
More About Drug Use
Tell Me About Drugs
Why Do Young People
Use Drugs?
Why Does My Child Use Drugs?
Why Don't They See it
as a Problem?
Other Drug Related Behaviours
What Else Can I Do?
Alcohol and Other Drug
Services for Families
Related Help Sheets
Understanding Mental Health
Complex Problems
Setting Boundaries
Suggested Reading
Burrows, C (1994) Clued up too: helping young people with drug issues, Australian Drug Foundation, Victoria.
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