Many researchers believe that self-medicating pain or an undiagnosed mental illness is responsible for most drug addiction cases, especially in the case of heroin and cocaine.
However, there’s also proof that substance abuse may cause mental disorders. No matter the cause, self-medicating can cause various detrimental effects on your body and mind.
What Is Self-Medicating?
Self-medicating involves using alcohol or narcotic substances to cope with both diagnosed and undiagnosed physical and mental health conditions.
Whether this involves using higher doses of medicine than prescribed by your doctor, obtaining illegal prescriptions, or buying medication from unregulated pharmacies, self-medicating can result in overdose, addiction, or the progression of co-occurring mental health issues, especially if withdrawal symptoms appear.
Most Common Conditions Causing People to Self-Medicate
Although self-medicating is present across nearly all diseases and disorders, a few conditions leave their victims at a higher risk of medicating with alcohol or other prescription medications.
Chronic or undiagnosed pain is one of the leading causes of self-medication. Those suffering from chronic pain often turn to using their friends’ or relatives’ prescription opioids or buy them from unregulated pharmacies.
If they’ve been given a prescription from a doctor, many may also feel tempted to take more than the prescribed dose, especially if their pain is particularly severe.
Mental Health Issues
People suffering from the symptoms of depression and anxiety or other less prevalent mental illnesses may be prone to self-medicating to deal with their negative emotions. The substances most often abused by individuals with an underlying mental health disorder include alcohol, stimulants, and sedatives.
Most Common Substances Used to Self-Medicate
A variety of drugs, both prescription and recreational, as well as alcohol may be used to self-medicate health conditions, including:1
- Alcohol: Alcohol produces feelings of relaxation and reduced judgment. Many people use it to deal with their stress, anxiety, and depression, although it may worsen these mental conditions if consumed excessively or over the long term.
- Stimulants: Stimulants are another drug group popular among people with mental health issues, as cocaine and other amphetamines produce euphoria in their users.
- Marijuana: Cannabis is the most commonly used drug by individuals with mental disorders like depression. Some believe the mellowing effects of the drug help calm their negative feelings, although marijuana may worsen depression symptoms in the long run.
- Opioids: Opioids are a class of powerful painkillers that are highly addictive and place users at risk of overdosing. They are typically used by people struggling with chronic or acute pain.
Why Do People Choose to Self-Medicate?
There may be various reasons why someone self-medicates, including:
- Not being able to cover the costs of medical insurance or doctor’s visits
- Worry surrounding being misdiagnosed or not given the right medication
- As a result of the negative stigmas surrounding their condition, especially if they suffer from a mental illness
- Not wanting to admit they are sick and need help
The Relationship Between Self-Medication and Co-Occurring Disorders
The abuse of drugs and alcohol can either be caused by a co-occurring mental condition or place users at an increased risk of developing one due to the highs, lows, and adverse effects of their substances. Withdrawal symptoms could also significantly worsen existing mental health issues should they stop or reduce their usage.
What Are the Dangers of Self-Medicating?
Self-medicating could lead to serious health dangers, including:2
- Substance use disorders and drug addiction: Misusing prescription medications or turning to street drugs to self-medicate could result in addiction and physical dependence on the substances you are taking.
- Unexpected side effects: When a doctor prescribes a medication to you, they will usually go through the possible side effects beforehand. Self-medicating may not only leave you with unexpected adverse effects but could also cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms should you become addicted.
- Incorrect diagnosis: Doctors have years of training to provide the correct diagnosis among dozens of diseases with similar symptoms. There’s a significant risk that self-medicating may worsen or have no effect on your condition if the drug you’re using isn’t meant for treating your particular illness.
- Masking a serious condition: Using pain medication or other drugs to treat the symptoms of your condition may mask or ease its effects without addressing the cause.
When to Seek Help
If you struggle to function normally without your substance of choice or you experience withdrawal symptoms when you reduce or stop your dosage, you may need help to treat your addiction or dependence. Getting specialized addiction treatment is particularly important if you have a co-occurring mental illness.
Dual-diagnosis programs are focused on treating the behavioral and physical effects of both withdrawal and your mental disorder. Treatment methods usually include supervised medical detox, group and individual therapy, and support groups to ease the symptoms of both conditions during your program.
If you or a loved one suffers from addiction, contact our team at (949) 427-9099 to get the help you need.