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Understanding Developmental Harm from Substance Use

We all know that drinking excessively can kill off a few brain cells, but did you know that substance use in young people can have some more consequential long term effects?

Research indicates that Australian adolescents who consume substances, frequently or from an early age, are more likely to experience developmental harm down the track.

As licit and illicit experimentation is more common among younger generations, it is important to know the facts about the impacts these behaviours have on the future. We’ve compiled some information about increased risks and preventative strategies for alcohol and drug use.

it is important to know the facts about the impacts these behaviours have on the future.

#Developmental Harm Q & A

What is developmental harm?

Developmental harm refers to the increased risks of developing mental health problems as well as adverse outcomes, such as substance dependence, educational underachievement, physical health problems, and poor social skills, in late adolescence and early adulthood.

What are the outcomes from consuming substances at a young age?

The developmental harms experienced by a young person is dependent on the substance/s they consume. In terms of smoking, tobacco use increases the risk of physical and mental health problems in adult years whilst cannabis use increases the risk of developing psychosis, depression, anxiety and educational underachievement. Contrastingly, unhealthy drinking patterns, prevalent throughout the young adult years, increases the risk of assaults, sexual exploitation, car accidents, broken bones and other accidental injuries. Research studies further indicate that early onset of drugs and alcohol increases the chance of substance misuse, substance dependence and physical health issues such as respiratory problems and cancer.

Can substances impact recovery of mental and physical health problems?

Not only can early onset or frequent substance use increase the risk of mental disorders, it can also impact recovery from pre-existing mental and physical health issues. Studies show that 50% of individuals with serious mental health problems are affected by substance abuse, and 29% of mentally ill people abuse alcohol and drugs. Individuals turn to substances as it can help alleviate symptoms of health issues however, this form of ‘self-medication’ can interact with prescription medication, increase the risks of additional symptoms, worsen health in the long run, and delay the recovery process.

How to help an adolescent who is using alcohol and drugs?

There are many ways to support young people who are experimenting with substances. Starting a healthy conversation, modelling healthy consumption habits, ensuring attendance at school education programs and referring them to external support, are all ways you can help your teen understand the long term effects of alcohol and drugs. Starting a conversation, sooner rather than later, allows your teen to develop their own opinions and create trust within your relationship.

Is there support available for young people?

There are many support networks young adolescents can access during these years of change and new experiences. Remember to tell them they’re not alone as they navigate this period.

For emergency support, contact emergency services on 000 or 112.


Phone: 13 11 14
Online: (24/7)

Counselling Online

Phone: 1800 177 833 (QLD)
Online: (24/7)

Beyond Blue

Phone: 1300 22 4636
Online: (3pm - 12 am)

Kids Help Line

Phone: 1800 55 1800
Online: (24/7)