Self-medication is a problem around the world that impacts basic health care and contributes to many people’s issues with substance abuse and mental illness. There are many potential dangers for a person taking medications or prescriptions to treat self-recognized or self-diagnosed conditions or symptoms. Additionally, some people self-medicate via drugs or alcohol. About half of individuals who have substance abuse issues also deal with mental health problems. The exact link between the two has not been determined, but the two problems co-occur with some frequency.
Risks of Self-Medication
It is crucial that no one takes any drug, even prescribed medications, for any self-diagnosed condition. The dangers are many and include:
- Incorrect self-diagnosis
- Delays in seeking medical advice when needed
- Infrequent but severe adverse reactions
- Dangerous drug interactions
- Incorrect manner of administration
- Incorrect dosage
- Incorrect choice of therapy
- Masking of a severe disease
- Risk of dependence and abuse
Self-medicating for physical illness has also led to issues surrounding an increased resistance to pathogens that have created a growing problem with antimicrobial resistance. Taking a drug that has not been prescribed also wastes valuable medical resources.
Self-Medication, Addiction, and Mental Illness
Beyond the issues surrounding the misuse of medications to treat physical ailments, there are significant issues involving people who abuse drugs or alcohol to treat symptoms of mental illness. Many individuals use substances to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. Not only is this not an effective way to treat these or other mental health concerns, but the misuse of drugs and alcohol can also develop into addiction.
Signs that someone may be using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate include:
- Avoiding family, friends, social events, and other activities
- Sudden changes in hobbies or friend groups
- Secrecy about how one spends time
- Neglecting physical care, such as showering or eating
- Having difficulties in work, school, or other areas
- Sudden anger
- New or unusual financial problems because of the cost of alcohol and drugs
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than 40% of people in treatment for a substance use disorder for nonmedical use of prescription painkillers also have a diagnosis or symptoms of a mental health disorder, often depression or anxiety.
A strong link between substance use disorders and mental disorders has been found in those dealing with depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
Increase in Mental Health Problems
The pandemic exasperated many people’s stress, depression, and anxiety levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of American adults who reported symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder within any seven-day period increased from 36.4% to 41.5% between August 19, 2020, and February 1, 2021. Additionally, the number of individuals who shared that they needed mental health counseling or therapy during the past four weeks but didn’t receive any increased from 9.2% to 11.7%. The increase in both figures was more for adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than high school education.
The CDC also found that more than 13% of people surveyed reported they had started or increased their use of substances to cope with the additional stress and emotions connected to the pandemic. Studies have also shown that overdose deaths increased during the early months of the pandemic.
While the long-term ramifications on people self-medicating to manage the stress, anxiety, and depression that accompanied the pandemic may not be fully clear, there is reason to believe that the impact will be significant in terms of issues with substance abuse and mental health.
How to Stop Self-Medicating
Self-medicating is not the same as addiction, but it can lead to dependence or addiction, depending on the individual. Regardless, it is not a healthy or helpful coping strategy. To stop self-medicating, a person should reach out for help. Talking to a doctor or other health care provider can be an essential first step. Another option is to contact a support group or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) ’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Other ways to manage emotions that have led to self-medicating include:
- Exploring other activities, such as exercise, journaling, or doing something creative, as an outlet for negative feelings
- Creating awareness around urges or cravings and then “urge surfing” to “ride the wave” of the feeling instead of giving in to it.
- Practicing self-care, including eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
- Engaging in mindfulness activities like meditation or yoga to calm the feelings.
The temporary fix that self-medication supplies is not a healthy or long-term solution to feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress. Self-medication can result in dependence or addiction. It is better to find alternative outlets for negative emotions. If a problem has already developed, seeking help sooner rather than later can help.
Bridges of Hope’s treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. Utilizing therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices, Bridges of Hope provides superior patient care in Indiana through its all-inclusive treatment services.