Getting a handle on ICE!

Ice is getting a lot of attention lately and those supporting young people often struggle to understand the nature of the problems they are facing. Carers may also feel pretty powerless to help, particularly when all the information talks about Ice as such an addictive drug.

Check cut this great article from YoDAA that takes a fresh look at Ice, providing the latest view on where it is at. 

While ultimately change is the responsibility of the person using the drugs for young people it is a little more complicated. Young people are in a stage of their life where they are transitioning from dependence and so still need help to learn responsibility. There are also some specific things to keep in mind when supporting a young person who is using Ice. By understanding more about methamphetamine and how it effects the brain, we are able to anticipate some of the difficulties a young person who is using it may face and then give them the best support.

First thing then is to understand a bit more.

The Effects of Ice

Ice is one form of methamphetamine and causes a surge in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that normally help regulate different functions in the brain. When a person uses Ice, it mainly releases a huge amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine [for reward & pleasure], although it does also have an effect on noradrenaline [for attention and arousal] and serotonin [for mood]. This accounts for the feelings of elation, euphoria, alertness, focus and motivation that they feel and explains the ability of Ice to keep a person awake for days when used in high doses.

Usually when the brain releases these chemicals they are reabsorbed to be used again, however Ice also stops this happening. This creates a short term (about 3 days) shortage of these important brain chemicals while the brain manufactures more. In the days that follow some common experiences are:

  • Low mood
  • Variable motivation
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Poor attention
  • Irritability
  • Trouble with sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Strong cravings

The longer a person uses Ice, the more their brain may struggle to produce dopamine (and noradrenaline and serotonin), sometimes creating long-term shortages. In these cases, even after stopping their use, it can take several months before these chemical levels are back to normal.

This can mean that young people experience changeable moods, potential anxiety and depression, are easily stressed – long term effect post-cessation. 

Not surprisingly, when people experience these low levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, they will crave the drug that causes them to feel elated, awake and alert and helps them focus and concentrate. This is why Ice use is associated with strong cravings over a longer period of time, a higher risk of a young person using again and takes longer to reduce or cease use.

Coming Down or Withdrawal

When a young person has been using Ice, they will experience a ‘come down’. The degree of this will depend on how much and how long they have been using. They may feel:

  • Very depressed
  • At heightened risk of self-harm or suicidality
  • Experience anxiety and irritability
  • Difficult to concentrate and poor attention

The best response in this situation is to offer caring support and focus on recovery strategies such as eating regular, hearty and healthy meals and getting plenty of sleep.

It is best to delay any consequences or detailed discussions about the situation until the body has had a chance to recover for a period of time. The young person is unlikely to be very receptive when they first arrive home in this state.


It is possible to overdose on Ice as it increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, seizure or drug-induce psychotic episodes.

Signs and symptoms may be:

  • Chest pain
  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Severe headache
  • Seizures
  • High temperature (overheating)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Agitation and paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Unconsciousness

How you can help

So, we know that Ice effects motivation, memory and planning. It also impacts sleep and alertness with subsequent impacts on mental health. Now how can this impact on how you care for and support the young person.

Carers close to these young people can play a huge role in helping them with problems they experiences related to Ice. This could be things such as raising concerns early on to promoting an environment where change is possible for the young person.

Stick by them for the long haul

With stronger cravings for longer, young people using ice experience a much higher risk of using again even long after use has been reduced or ceased. If a young person struggles to stop using despite saying they want to stop or uses after a period of being abstinent try to take an understanding approach. Chances are they are not trying to upset anyone and they are probably disappointed themselves.

Understand that their motivation may vary

A young person’s motivation and ability to plan ahead may be effected by Ice use. This means when a young person seeks professional help they might struggle to make every appointment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t interested in help. It might be worth considering how you could support them to get to these appointments. Can you help with strategies to get organised and plan ahead?

Avoid Information Overload

With Ice use there is potential that some young people may have temporary difficulty with flexible thinking, attention and retaining information. When providing information about services, limits and consequences, or about anything at all, think about focusing on one or two ideas at a time using repetition to help a young person take in info.

Eat, sleep and reassure

Finally, young people who have been using Ice for extended periods of time may experience an overall deterioration in physical and mental health. As with any drug, reassuring a young person that their health can improve is key – focus on providing nutrition and a safe environment for young people to sleep for extended periods of time.

Most important though is to remember that drug problems do not simply come from within a person or occur as a result of a drug’s effects. There is a strong correlation between drug problems and issues in other areas of a young person's life. So while the unique properties of Ice do have an impact on the problems Ice is creating, and while there are specific things to consider when helping a young person using Ice, Ice problems, like other drug problems, are still people problems.

Further Resources