As part of Motley’s issue on drugs, we conducted a survey where we asked students to share their experiences with party drugs in relation to their mental health. Here’s some important things to know about doing drugs and minding your mental health.
Alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the functions of your central nervous system. This is why you’re not technically supposed to mix vodka and energy drinks (Monster, Red Bull, etc), which contain the stimulant known as caffeine. Heavy drinking can lead to depressing thoughts or aggressive behaviour because it increases the amount of serotonin and dopamine in your brain. Once you stop drinking, your brain becomes deficient in these chemicals and begins to go through withdrawal, which is one of the contributing factors to those pesky hangovers.
Because alcohol is a depressant, it can make you tired and intensify your negative thoughts. It’s common for people with social anxiety or pre-existing mental health conditions to use alcohol as a way to ‘loosen up’ at parties or social gatherings, but the chemical toll alcohol takes on the brain following a heavy night of drinking can actually make your anxiety worse. Drinking can be used as a replacement for healthy coping mechanisms, creating an unhealthy cycle that is difficult to break. Alcohol also lowers your inhibitions, making it so you’re more likely to engage in risky or unsafe behaviour that you might regret in the morning, which could compound your anxiety by leading to feelings of shame or guilt. One student shared that “specific drugs haven’t had an impact on my mental health in the same way that the situations the drugs got me into” have. Another student referred to the “extreme anxiety when hungover” as “the fear,” which “sometimes takes days to clear and is crippling.”
We asked students to share their thoughts and experiences with drugs and alcohol in relation to mental health, and several students responded by saying that alcohol negatively affected their mental health in the short term, often resulting in them feeling “very low” or “extremely depressed” the following day.
Cannabis: Cannabis, or marijuana, affects people’s mental health differently – some people avoid marijuana because it makes them feel incredibly frightened and paranoid, while others celebrate the medicinal benefits of the drug and smoke cannabis every day to relax. Sounds a little contradictory, doesn’t it? Scientists have done a significant amount of research to get to the bottom of why cannabis affects users so differently, and it comes down to a variety of factors including genetics, biochemistry, and even your biological sex.
This means that it’s difficult to gauge how smoking cannabis will affect you until you try it yourself. Fortunately, cannabis is a relatively safe drug, especially in small doses, so it’s safer to experiment with cannabis than it is to experiment with other recreational drugs, such as cocaine or MDMA. Cannabis is more dangerous when used daily in large quantities, and there’s a lot of debate in the marijuana community in regards to whether or not weed should be considered ‘addictive.’ The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States released data several years ago that suggested “marijuana use can lead to the development of problem use, known as a marijuana use disorder, which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Recent data suggest that 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder.” But the debate largely centres around the semantics of the word ‘addiction’ as opposed to the word ‘dependance.’ You can be physically or mentally dependent on a drug without being addicted to it, but for many frequent marijuana users, the technicalities of whether they’re dependent on cannabis or addicted to it doesn’t make a difference – when you feel as if you can’t stop smoking weed and its interfering with your daily life, then it’s a problem either way. It is important to note also, that multiple studies have linked excessive cannabis use (in THC form) and psychosis/schizophrenia. The scientific debate is no longer about whether or not it can cause psychosis, but whether or not it induces it faster in individuals predisposed to psychotic disorders, or can induce it also in individuals with no such predisposition.
One student responded to our survey saying “Weed did wonders for my anxiety when I first began smoking, but then I began to rely on it too heavily. Now it’s the first thing I turn towards when I’m feeling anxious, and it just isn’t sustainable.” They went on to admit that “it’s difficult to think clearly now. I have a lot of brain fog, and it’s made me really unproductive. I feel stupid, and my tolerance is so high now that I hardly feel the effects of weed anymore, yet I still want to smoke it.”
Another student responded saying: “Cannabis is working wonders for me… Cannabis let’s me take a step back and see the big picture. Whether I’m cleaning, planning my day, playing some games, watching YouTube, or listening to music – it gives me a nice boost. Being a chronic insomniac it helps me sleep too. This was the biggest benefit for my mental health.”
Cannabis can be incredibly useful for people suffering from appetite or sleep issues, but it develops into a problem when you find that you can’t eat or fall asleep without it. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a chemical compound found in cannabis that doesn’t give you the euphoric effect of a high, but is known to be useful for treating anxiety, insomnia, and appetite issues. CBD is not legally considered a medicine in Ireland, and it can only be advertised as a food supplement – but it’s still worth looking into if you’re attempting to treat your anxiety without pharmaceuticals but don’t want to be high.
Cocaine and MDMA: Cocaine is a stimulant, so the appeal of the drug is that it floods your brain cells with dopamine. It makes you energetic and euphoric, and this feeling can be addictive. But using cocaine regularly over a prolonged period of time can make your brain less sensitive to dopamine, meaning that you’ll need to increase the amount of cocaine you’re using if you want to achieve the same high you felt the first few times you used it, which may lead to neurological damage. You can also become addicted to the psychological and physical effect of the drug, or feel as if you can’t have a good time without it. Many students will use the term “fried” when describing how cocaine or MDMA made their brain feel. “I used to take coke for a while… and I found that the morning after I’d been out I used to totally crash, and would be super unhappy all day. I also found that my brain was totally fried for a while afterwards (a couple of months).” Another student said: “The first time I used MDMA, I had no idea what a ‘comedown’ even was and I was caught totally unprepared. I felt miserable for an entire week afterwards and I’ve never been so depressed in my life. It really scared me. I had a great night but it wasn’t worth the comedown.”
Harm Reduction: To reduce the extent to which drugs negatively affect your mental health, the most important thing is to make sure using drugs does not become your primary method of coping with unpleasant emotions, especially if you struggle with a chronic mental health condition.
If you’re taking antidepressants, there are other factors you need to take into account. Drinking while taking antidepressants can result in your medication not working properly, or in your blood pressure spiking. You’re also more likely to black out if you drink heavily while on antidepressants, and your medication just can’t help you the way it’s meant to. If you choose to drink heavily on antidepressants, you can keep yourself safe by drinking pints of water between each of your drinks, eating a substantial meal prior to drinking, and letting your friends know that you’re on antidepressants so they can help you if you become too intoxicated.
Taking cocaine or MDMA while on antidepressants is much more dangerous because your brain will be flooded with an excess of dopamine and serotonin, which may lead to serotonin syndrome. The symptoms of serotonin syndrome include confusion, fever, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, agitation or restlessness, dilated pupils, loss of muscle coordination, and seizures.
Antidepressants such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and escitalopram regulate the amount of serotonin in your brain, so sometimes when you take MDMA on one of these medications you won’t even feel high. This leads to people taking more and more of the drug until they begin to feel the effects and if you take too much it can lead to serotonin syndrome, which has the potential to be fatal.
If you choose to use drugs, you should start with a very small dose and wait an hour or two before taking more. If you’re doing a large amount of the drug, or doing any drug for the first time ever, inform your friends and don’t mix the drug with alcohol. Stay hydrated while dancing, but don’t drink more than one pint per hour, and if you feel unwell or unsafe while or after doing drugs, call 112 or 999.
When asked if people with pre-existing mental health difficulties avoid using recreational drugs, students responded with the following:
“If they have previous experience and understand how it can negatively affect them, then no, but mental health is so varied and specific. I think with good judgement it’s down to the individual.”
“It always depends on the person. Some drugs may help people with certain mental health difficulties. I’ve heard acid/mushrooms can really help people with anxiety and body dysphoria but on the flip side someone with bad self esteem issues could have a bad trip and feel worse afterwards. Some people love milk, others are allergic. Depends entirely on each individual, setting and dosage. Never try recreational drugs for the first time unless you’re in a comfortable setting with friendly people.”
“This kind of question is better answered by a medical professional. Anecdotally, I believe it depends. I’m excited to see the incorporation of dissociative and psychedelics into mental health treatment. There’s huge potential for psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine and other drugs to be used in therapy and in daily life. Certain people should stay away from drugs. There are those with highly severe psychiatric disorders who will simply make things worse by partaking in certain drugs. Those on anti-psychotic medication for example are at risk as far as I can tell.”
“In Ireland at the moment no drugs are regulated and you never know exactly what you are getting. For that reason I would say that someone who has pre existing mental health difficulties should err on the side of caution or just avoid drugs altogether. Everyone is different and some people use it as an escape but it is the aftermath of taking drugs that can cause people to spiral even deeper into their mental health struggle that has to be taken into account.”
Useful Phone Numbers:
HSE Drugs and Alcohol Helpline: 1800 459 459 from Monday to Friday between 9:30 am and 5:30 pm
The Samaritans: 116 123, available 24/7
Pieta House: Call 1800 247 247, available 24/7 or text ‘Help’ to 51444, available 24/7