Recreational drugs and alcohol

Explains the mental health effects of recreational drugs, what might happen if you use recreational drugs and also have a mental health problem, and suggestions for where to find support.

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What types of drugs are there?

There are four main groups of drugs, divided according to their major effects, plus a few substances that do not easily fit into any category. The main categories are:


These make you feel:

  • energetic
  • alert
  • talkative
  • active
  • very excited

They can be very dangerous (causing death) at high doses.

Repeated use can cause psychosis and paranoia, which may be diagnosed as schizophrenia. They are also addictive.

Depressants (sedatives)

These make you feel:

  • relaxed
  • chilled out
  • mellow
  • possible paradoxical effects – anxiety, nightmares, aggression

They are dangerous at high doses. They are addictive.

Opium-related painkillers

These make you feel:

  • a rush of pleasure
  • in a dreamy state
  • drowsy

They are very dangerous at high doses. They are addictive.


These vary a lot. The same drug may have different effects at different times.

These may make you feel:

  • detached from your surroundings
  • mood swings
  • altered sense of space and time
  • hallucinations, illusions and distortions of reality
  • feelings of insight
  • mystical or religious experiences

The experience may be powerful and not much fun.


  • you will not necessarily experience these effects
  • someone showing symptoms like this will not necessarily be taking drugs – there may well be other causes
  • all these drugs can also cause physical side effects, some of which can be unpleasant or dangerous

For more information about physical effects of illegal drugs, see the Frank or Erowid websites.

New psychoactive substances (illegal highs)

These are synthetic substances created to try to mimic the effects of existing drugs in the categories above, to get around the law. They used to be called 'legal highs' but all such substances are now illegal.

Most have unknown effects in addition to their intended effect, and trying them is therefore extremely hazardous.

This information was published in November 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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