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What is Self-Medication, and What are the Dangers?

self-medicating with drugs

Are you, or is someone you love, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol?

Self-medication is the practice in which a person misuses drugs or alcohol in an attempt to feel better – typically, to manage distress or pain caused by a health condition. Rather than seeking professional treatment or advice, many individuals will turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

For example, many individuals struggling with a mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol in efforts to alleviate, or even escape, their symptoms. Sometimes, individuals will self-medicate to try and numb physical pain, such as that caused by injury or even drug withdrawal. Have you ever felt so sad that you wanted to drown your sorrows in alcohol? Or, have you hurt so bad that you took whichever pills you could find in the medicine cabinet? Maybe you have been extremely anxious about something, and took a drug to ease your nerves. Those are all examples of self-medication.

As highlighted by Merriam-Webster, self-medication is usually done without the advice or intervention of a clinician.

The Problem with Self-Medicating

Self-medication is becoming an increasing concern, as we continue to fight a global pandemic that’s created great distress, worry, and despair across communities. As mental health disorders rise, so does self-medication and, in turn, substance abuse and addiction. 

In 2021, the CDC reported that the number of Americans with “unmet mental health care needs” has increased since the early months of the pandemic. The mental health implications are hitting young people particularly hard. According to a CDC survey cited by Forbes, almost two-thirds of young people are suffering “significant symptoms of anxiety or depression” since the pandemic. When a mental health disorder is left untreated and unaddressed, it can lead to significant problems with substance abuse.

There has been an evident increase in substance abuse since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Those with unmet mental health needs are turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, to deal with their negative symptoms. Often, these include substances found at home – such as alcohol, marijuana, and painkillers. However, many are also buying substances illegally, rather than consulting with a clinician about their distress. Many are fearful or ashamed to seek professional help, and drugs/alcohol are an “easy” way around it. 

However, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is also very dangerous.

Drugs and alcohol can trigger temporary sensations of euphoria and relief. In the short-term, they may seem like an effective way to deal with pain or emotion. However, long-term, they can make problems a lot worse. When used regularly for a period of time, drugs and alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms associated with a mental health disorder. This means that long-term self-medication can actually be detrimental to your health. It can increase feelings of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and stress, as well as cause other health issues. Not to mention, drug and alcohol abuse can damage relationships and disrupt obligations like work.

The Dangers of Self-Medication

Our culture tends to normalize drinking or drug use during stressful times. People go out for drinks after a bad day at work, or smoke marijuana to “take the edge off” when they feel upset. As a result, self-medication often goes undetected or, to users, seems like a harmless act. The problem is, it can lead to dangers such as:

  • Worsened mental health conditions: As noted above, self-medicating a mental health problem can create worsened symptoms. For example, cocaine use has been associated with worsened progression of bipolar disorder. 
  • Development of additional mental health issues: Drug and alcohol use can change the brain structure and function after a period of time. These changes can then trigger an underlying predisposition to develop a mental illness, or secondary mental health condition, including mood, psychotic, and impulse-control disorders.
  • Development of a substance use disorder: Perhaps the most obvious outcome of self-medication is the potential to develop a dependence on drugs and alcohol. Substance addiction is common among those with mental health conditions for this very reason. They repeatedly use drugs and alcohol, and in time, require those substances to function and feel good. Substance use disorders come with their own slew of negative symptoms and dangers, particularly as they relate to a person’s mental and physical health. However, regular substance abuse also puts a person at greater risk for overdose, which is among the greatest dangers of all.

Aside from these dangers, other risks of self-medication include:

  • Delays in getting help: Substances can mask the symptoms of a mental health problem, or even physical issue. This can lead to delays in seeking proper help, which can be particularly dangerous if there are severe issues or diseases at play.
  • Incorrect self-diagnosis: Self-medication quite literally implies self-administration of drugs and alcohol, meaning there is no clinical diagnosis of the issue. This means that many individuals are diagnosing themselves without seeing a professional physician.
  • Dangerous drug interactions or reactions: When using drugs at home, many people do not always research the adverse effects or potential reactions they cause. Some may use multiple substances together to achieve a desired effect, such as painkillers and alcohol, which can cause immediate dangers, as well.

Common Forms of Self-Medication

Self-medication can come in many forms. While self-medication is a term that may be used to describe the administration of over-the-counter drugs, it most often applies to the misuse of drugs and alcohol to cope with health conditions. Common examples of self-medication are:

  • Drinking or using drugs to escape depression
  • Using drugs to calm bipolar disorder
  • Using drugs or drinking to ease anxiety (often social anxiety)
  • Drinking or using drugs to improve one’s mood
  • Drinking or using drugs to alleviate a physical pain

Getting the Proper Help

Substance abuse is often indicative of a larger problem or condition, such as a mental health disorder. In fact, those who have a substance use disorder are twice as likely to also struggle with mood disorders like depression and anxiety (and vice versa). Today, about 8 million people in the United States struggle with both a mental illness and substance use disorder. If you are struggling and self-medicating, you are not alone. However, it is important that you get help.

The first step to getting help for compulsive self-medication is to recognize that a problem exists. If you are here, you may already see that your self-medicating is spiraling out of control. Or, you may be concerned about a loved one’s self-medicating habits. The next step requires seeking a professional treatment program that specializes in co-occurring disorders

As noted above, substance use and mental health disorders often co-occur. Co-occurring disorders require integrated, specialized treatment, and not all rehab programs or treatment centers are equipped to address these conditions. If you do not know where to start, you can always contact Turnbridge as a first step. Turnbridge is a recognized treatment center for youth and young adults battling with substance use disorders, mental health disorders, and co-occurring conditions. We can help guide you in getting on the path to recovery.

Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more.