Addiction is on the rise, but how do you know if a co-worker or your teenager is using drugs? To be sure, here are the telltale signs of drug abuse

If someone you care for – whether it’s a friend or your teenage child – is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may exhibit some or all of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Weight loss, skin colour change, skin outbreaks
  • Intense urges or cravings as the addiction develops
  • Withdrawal symptoms leading to suboptimal performance and physical craving
  • Isolation, depression, anxiety and paranoia
  • Unhealthy friendships with people who have similar habits
  • Financial difficulties due to large amounts of money being spent on drugs or alcohol
  • Neglecting responsibilities such as work or personal obligations
  • Poor judgement, including risky behaviour such as stealing, lying, engaging in unsafe sex, selling drugs, or crimes that could land the person in jail

What makes someone an addict?

Marna Acker, an occupational therapist at Akeso Clinic Nelspruit, says certain people are more at risk for substance abuse and for developing addiction disorders than others.

“There are many factors that may make people vulnerable, including genetics, family background, mental health issues, work stress, financial pressure, and relationship problems.”

She says feelings of depression, anxiety, a lack of control, peer pressure – particularly when substance use is a norm – boredom, and the feeling of not having a sense of purpose can also be contributing factors.

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What’s the harm?

According to the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU), cannabis and alcohol are the substances most likely to be abused.

Sadly, many people think it’s normal to end the day with a few glasses of wine or a joint, but the habit of using so-called harmless substances has serious negative effects.  

Acker says that while different substances have different effects, depression, anxiety and paranoia are among the most common long-term results of substance abuse.

“Cannabis users, for example, may experience poor attention span, as well as memory and learning loss. Poor performance, permanent cognitive impairment, lack of motivation, immunosuppression, cardiac and lung complications, are all common effects.”

She also warns that cannabis-induced psychosis may occur.

“Several studies have linked marijuana use to increased risk for psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, although whether and to what extent it actually causes these conditions is not always easy to determine. On top of all these possible outcomes, sustained cannabis use can also have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships, work performance, financial management, and more. The list is endless.’

An added complication is that all substance abuse can lead to impulsive behaviour and poor judgement.

Alcohol abuse contributes to risky sexual behaviour, increasing the chances of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as liver diseases, neurological disorders, and chronic memory disorders, while opioids, such as morphine and the illegal drug heroin, can result in accidental overdose. Sometimes, drug abuse can actually increase a user’s risk of developing a mental disorder.

“Long-term drug abuse can also affect the physical health of the user, especially the kidneys, liver, heart and lungs,” Acker adds. “Increased tolerance is dangerous as it causes the individual to use more and more of a drug to achieve the desired euphoric or stimulated state. This increases the person’s risk for overdose and even death.”

Related: The truth about over-the-counter drug addiction

Drug abuse is on the rise in South Africa

Substance abuse is a growing social problem. In fact, drug consumption in South Africa is estimated to be twice the world norm.

It is not only destroying families, but also making our country unsafe as an estimated 60% of crimes committed involve the use of substances.

Alcohol, marijuana (dagga), cocaine, tik and heroin are some of the most frequently used substances in this country, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

There is little way of knowing just how many addicts there are in South Africa, but we do know how many are being treated and that number has risen sharply. According to the SACENDU project, there was an increase in the number of people admitted for substance abuse treatment – from 8 787 in 2016, to 10 047 in 2017, across 80 centres.

Although there is no magic wand for treating substance abuse, help is available.

Help for addicts

If you believe a friend or family member has an addiction, encourage them to seek help from a professional. Do not try to be that professional yourself.

“The recovery process is life-long, there is no recipe for success, and relapse is very common,” says Acker. “That’s why it is extremely important for people with addictions to have ongoing counselling and therapy, to belong to support groups and to have an accountability partner.”

Outpatient programmes are offered by organisations like the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependences (SANCA), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Short-term inpatient programs – 21 to 30 days – including detoxification, and longer-term in-patient programs – 90 days to a year or more – are offered by addiction clinics throughout the country. For example, Akeso Clinics offers an inpatient programme which focuses on addictions and other psychiatric issues (dual diagnosis), with a multi-disciplinary team approach.

If you’re not sure where to start, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) runs a free 24-hour Substance Abuse Helpline (0800 12 13 14) which you can call for advice. If you are unable to call, SMS 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.

Sources: Akeso Clinic,,, and

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.