Social and Emotional Wellbeing

Social and emotional wellbeing includes a person’s connection to land, culture, spirituality, family, and community. When people experience poor social and emotional wellbeing, their mental health is affected. They may look for ways to try and ‘escape’ their troubles. Some people turn to alcohol and other drugs to make them feel better.

The effects of alcohol and drug use on mental health

Some people will use alcohol or other drugs to cope with a mental health problem, or sometimes the substance use itself can contribute to problems with mental health. Using alcohol or other drugs can often make any existing mental health problems worse.

Alcohol and other drug dependence

Alcohol and other drug dependence is when a person takes alcohol or other drugs (substance use) over a long period of time even though using the substance is causing them serious problems. They may need more of the substance to get the same effect (build up a tolerance) and may experience withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol or other drug is not taken regularly. Withdrawal symptoms are the physical and mental effects that occur when the amount of the alcohol or other drug in the body begins to fall.

Some substances are more addictive than others

The effects of using some substances (such as ice), can be felt very quickly (quick onset of effect). This means that these substances are more addictive, because the person gets an immediate ‘reward’ for using. This encourages them to keep going back for more.

What are the signs and symptoms of alcohol and other drug dependence?

Some signs that a person may have become dependent on alcohol or other drugs (substances) are they:

  • are often unable to go to work, attend school, meet cultural obligations or do things they would usually do
  • often use substances in situations in which it is dangerous to do so, such as driving a car when drunk
  • have legal problems because of their substance use, such as being arrested for having illegal drugs
  • continue to use substances even though it’s causing problems in their social and personal lives, such as having physical fights with friends or arguments with their partner
  • need to use more of the substance to get the same effects (they develop tolerance)
  • use substances over a longer period of time than they planned to
  • find it hard to cut down the amount they’re using
  • spend a lot of time either trying to get the substance or recovering from the effects of using
  • recognise that using substances is causing them mental and/or physical problems but they still continue to use.

Dealing with an alcohol or other drug dependence needs a long term approach.  You can help someone with a substance use problem by encouraging them to:

  • talk to someone they trust, such as an Elder or friend
  • seek counselling (someone to yarn to)
  • speak to a doctor or another health professional with experience in working with people with substance use disorders
  • seek support from services that can help with alcohol, drugs, and mental health problems
  • seek cultural and spiritual support
  • look after their general health, such as healthy eating and getting regular exercise.

Effects of alcohol on mental health

Drinking alcohol can cause problems such as:

  • restless sleep
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • feelings become stronger, e.g. if you are feeling angry, the anger is stronger, if you are feeling sad, the sadness becomes stronger
  • dementia or memory loss (e.g. drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time can cause a form of dementia called Korsakoff’s syndrome).

Effects of cannabis on mental health

Cannabis (gunja, yarndi, marijuana) can make a person feel relaxed and happy but it can also make a person restless and change the way they see things such as:

  • a person may experience a short-term psychotic episode (difficulty working out what is real) after heavy cannabis use
  • some people may have paranoid thinking (feel suspicious and afraid), confused and jumbled thoughts, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there) and aggression – this can last for a few hours or up to two or three days
  • cannabis can trigger psychotic behaviour in people who have a mental disorder, even when they showed no symptoms of psychosis before using the drug
  • cannabis can trigger schizophrenia (a type of psychosis) in those who are at risk, e.g. they have family members with schizophrenia
  • people who use cannabis are more likely to experience depression
  • people sometimes use cannabis to calm anxiety but find it makes them more panicky and anxious in the long term
  • heavy cannabis use can increase a young person’s risk of suicide.

People with schizophrenia are strongly advised not to use cannabis.

Effects of ice on mental health

Ice affects people differently and may cause more problems for some people than others, especially if they have a history of mental illness.

Ice can make people:

  • feel suspicious and afraid (paranoid)
  • have increased feelings of anger
  • become aggressive
  • feel anxious and cause panic attacks
  • feel depressed and lack energy when they first stop using. If they have been using a lot of ice, or have been using for a long time, this can last several weeks or more.

Sometimes when a person has been using heavily or has used a lot all at once they may experience psychosis. Symptoms of psychosis include:

  • hearing or seeing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • feeling as though people are watching you or want to harm you (paranoia)
  • muddled and confused thinking.

Psychosis usually lasts only while someone is on ice or when they are coming down. If the psychosis lasts for more than a few days after a person stops using, they may have a longer term mental illness.

What to do if a person experiences psychosis

Encourage them to:

  • stop using
  • rest – sleep will help them feel more normal
  • seek help – once someone has had psychosis they are likely to get it again, so they should cut back on their ice use.

If someone on ice becomes aggressive:

  • keep a safe distance – do not disagree or confront them
  • try to provide them with a quiet environment away from noise and other distractions
  • do not approach them if they are being violent (e.g. breaking furniture, throwing things) or if they are being threatening.

If you are worried someone is going to be hurt call 000

Getting help


People with alcohol or other drug dependence can get help from many different types of services. These include:

  • withdrawal management (detox)
  • counselling
  • residential rehabilitation
  • support groups.

The Knowledge Centre has a listing of  social and emotional wellbeing services and programs that are specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Click on the link below:

Knowledge Centre listing of alcohol and other drug services for social, emotional and cultural wellbeing

Medicare mental health care plan

A person who has a diagnosed mental illness may be eligible for help under the Medicare mental health care plan through their doctor. This could include a referral for therapy services provided by a clinical psychologist, appropriately qualified GP, social worker or occupational therapist. For more information ask your doctor.

More information

The Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet Social and Emotional Wellbeing Portal has information on many aspects of mental health including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • schizophrenia
  • self harm and suicide.

If you want help or support or are worried about someone’s alcohol or other drug use call

in your state.


Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet (2011) Key facts – substance use: Social and emotional wellbeing workers web resource Retrieved 2015 from

Bullen L, Casey W, Childs S, Ferguson J, Jack P, Keats J, Miller L, Simpson L, Walker E, Winstock A, Woods J, Strong Spirit Strong Mind team (2012) General principles. In: Lee K, Freeburn B, Ella S, Miller W, Perry J, Conigrave K, eds. Handbook for Aboriginal alcohol and drug work. Sydney: University of Sydney:1-64

Garvey D (2008) Review of the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australian peoples. Retrieved 2015 from

National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (2010) Cannabis and mental health. Sydney: National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC)

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (2012) On ice. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC)

Key resources

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