Depressed man

Destructive coping behaviours : substance abuse

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By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line

Lately we’re hearing more and more about men’s mental health in the media, in politics and within the help-seeking sector.

This focus on men’s experience of mental health is in part driven by research that shows some pretty daunting figures. While we know that men and women experience mental health issues at roughly the same rates, the rates of help-seeking show stark differences, with men only representing 40% of the Medicare subsidised mental health services in Australia.[1]

The tragic result of this lack of help-seeking behaviour is that some men may instead seek respite from their troubles with unhealthy or damaging ‘coping behaviours’. The alarming statistics around gender-specific causes of death show that men are nearly twice as likely as women to die from drug or alcohol abuse and three times more likely to die by suicide.[2]


What are coping behaviours?

Coping behaviours are strategies that people use to overcome, get through or manage life’s problems or to protect themselves from psychological damage.[3]

In psychology and counselling, the term coping tends to refer to ‘adaptive’ or constructive strategies and behaviours – strategies which work towards healthy outcomes that improve functioning and reduce stress. Coping is something we all do to seek out and apply solutions to stressful situations or problems.

Hundreds of different coping strategies have been identified, but some are more effective and healthier than others.


What are unhealthy or destructive coping behaviours?

Just as there are ‘adaptive’ or constructive strategies and behaviours, there are also ‘maladaptive’ (or destructive / unhealthy) strategies that serve as barriers to positive outcomes and feeling better long-term. Avoidance of the underlying issue almost always lies at the heart of unhealthy coping behaviours.

An unhealthy coping method is one that only provides a temporary relief from symptoms while maintaining and strengthening the disorder or problem at hand. These unhealthy techniques are short-term fixes that either don’t help tackle the issue in the long-term, or can make long-term recovery more difficult to achieve.

These damaging coping behaviours are used by many people, as they do have more immediate, ‘quick fix’ effect in feeling better in the short-term. However, the problem with using these coping techniques is that while they stop people from feeling awful in that moment, over time they actually increase the dysfunction by strengthening and maintaining it. They also prevent people from learning how to deal with their challenges and find solutions in positive ways.

There are many examples of maladaptive behaviour strategies, but the ones that most people are familiar with are the ‘escape’ or ‘flight’ strategies, which include:

  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Drugs or substance abuse
  • Risk taking behaviours
  • Gambling


Substance abuse

We’ll focus on the first two strategies here, as they are quite common techniques but also among the most damaging, especially for people battling anxiety and / or depression.  Substance abuse in particular, such as alcohol, drugs or other mood or mind altering substances, actually maintains a disorder, due to their effect on body and brain chemistry.

Ironically, the short-term positive feelings that alcohol and drugs can produce make the underlying problem worse and make it harder to get better. They affect our brain in similar ways to stress, anxiety and depression.  These substances may also leave you feeling, anxious, agitated, flat, unmotivated, moody or angry.  They are depressants which affect the messaging processes in our brains.  They can also lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels, both of which help regulate mood. Lower levels of these chemicals can, for example, make a depressed person more depressed.

Alcohol and drugs are also known to interrupt your sleep’s circadian rhythm and block rapid eye moment (REM) sleep, which is often considered the most restorative type of sleep. This can have a significant effect on our mood and our ability to cope with the challenges of daily life.


So what can we do?

The concerning statistics about men’s mortality seem to indicate that when men cannot find the help they need, some turn to unhealthy ways of coping, with tragic results. This needs to serve as a call for all of us to get involved in solutions and make healthy help much easier to access.

This includes steps like:

  • Education – teach people about positive and productive ways of coping
  • Overcome stigma surrounding help seeking by talking openly about it
  • Adapt our approaches to suit men (link to last men blog) and those who respond better to alternate approaches

We can all play a part in helping men make safer and healthier choices. Let’s work together across society to reduce the lives lost to substances and suicide.


More information about the effects of alcohol and drugs



[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Medicare subsidised mental health-related services 2016-17

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics – Causes of Death, Australia, 2016.