Many people in the USA currently live with mental illnesses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 1 in 5 adults currently live with a mental illness or disorder. This is quite a large number, but sadly, many people do not go and receive professional help. Instead, people may turn to self-medicating to soothe and lessen the pain of the symptoms they feel. Self-medicating is when someone uses a substance, such as drugs, herbs, or home remedies, to treat a medical condition without the oversight of a doctor.
There are ways to self-medicate as a way to stay healthy. For example, if you have trouble sleeping, you may enjoy a nice cup of tea to help you relax in time for sleep. If you feel sick, drinking nutritious broth will keep you nourished. Eating oranges give you vitamin C, which boosts your immune system. These types of self-medication are not the ones to be worried about. We will instead discuss the negative aspect of it when self-medication becomes dangerous and unhealthy.
Why People Self-Medicate
Many people self-medicate for different reasons, but so far the most common reasons why are:
- Poverty and the inability to afford professional treatment.
- Believing the substance they are using to self-medicate is harmless.
- Anxiety and fear over seeing a doctor for their mental illness, including fear of medications.
- Hiding a mental illness from loved ones.
- The societal stigma of dealing with your problems yourself or else you are ‘weak’.
- Dealing with chronic pain and illnesses that regular medications may not be able to treat.
- Dealing with intense stress or trauma.
Without many options to turn to, many people decide that self-medicating is better than nothing. Education and more funding for low-cost healthcare are some means to combat this, but changing the stigma of mental illness is easier said than done.
Common Substances Used to Self-Medicate
People may use any kind of substance to self-medicate, but so far the most common ones are:
- Alcohol and Nicotine.
- Drugs (Both illegal drugs and controlled substances, drugs that are prescribed carefully as they may become addictive.)
- Prescription medications are ordered online without the oversight of a doctor.
- Food and Caffeine.
- Marijuana (Which can worsen depression symptoms).
Because of our society, things such as alcohol and caffeine are widely accepted as part of daily life. After all, many people cannot start the day without a cup of coffee. But to the surprise of some, caffeine can be very dangerous, and excess amounts can cause anxiety in people or even an overdose. Buying prescriptions online is an act that many people are forced to make due to the inability to afford treatment, but this is also dangerous as it is difficult to be sure what you order is what you get.
Marijuana can be effective in treating many conditions, but for some cases such as depression and paranoia, it can worsen the symptoms. Food by far is the most commonly accepted form of self-medication. When you feel sad, you often feel like getting your favorite treat, such as ice cream, to soothe your feelings. In small amounts, this can be fine, but when used excessively it can cause negative health problems.
Why Is Self-Medicating Unhealthy?
Primarily the reason why self-medicating is so bad is that it is like putting a band-aid on a hole in a dam. Sure it may keep the water back for a little while, but the pressure will continue to grow until there is a catastrophic release. This can come in several ways. One of the most common results of self-medicating is the development of a substance abuse disorder (SUD). When you rely on substances to manage your emotions and pain, addiction can quickly form. Addiction along with a mental illness is known as a dual diagnosis and requires specialized treatment for the person affected.
Even if you do not develop an addiction, masking emotions is not healthy or productive. By doing this you never get to address the root of the problem that is causing the negative emotions. Soon you will need more or stronger substances to cope, and more often than not these people can hit a point where it risks their lives. Overdose can be a result of self-medication, as well as other medical injuries from using these substances.
Social and familial relationships will begin to strain and fail as people notice that there is something wrong while the affected person pretends that things are fine. This puts a tremendous strain on the people around you. This can result in things such as losing your job if addiction is severe enough, or even having people you love take a step back until you admit that you need help.
How to Know When Your Self-Medication Is Unhealthy
There are several ways to tell if you or someone you love is self-medicating in an unhealthy way. If one or more of these examples are being regularly practiced or observed, it’s time to seek out professional help.
- Using alcohol or drugs while on the job.
- Drinking or using drugs immediately after feeling negative emotions.
- Using alcohol or drugs as the first step of your day.
- Feeling that you cannot cope with daily life without alcohol or drugs.
- Experiencing an overdose of alcohol or drugs.
- Loved ones express worry or fear when you drink or use drugs.
- Drinking or using drugs to remain numb to emotions.
It is possible to break unhealthy habits with help and encouragement. Once you realize you have a problem, the next step is to reach out for help. It may seem overwhelming, but with good people by your side, you can accomplish anything.
When you feel bad, you will always want to do something that will make you feel better, regardless if it is healthy or not. Sometimes that thing is drugs and alcohol. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we are waiting to help you. Nobody should have to live a life of pain and struggle and nobody should have to turn to drugs and alcohol to soothe their symptoms. We have the tools to teach you how to cope with life in a way that you can understand. We offer several treatment plans that are tailored to your wants and needs. You are a human being and are worthy of respect and care, and we very much want to help you feel your best. If you or someone you love is struggling with not only symptoms of a mental illness, but also addiction resulting from self-medication, call (949) 866-3461 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.