It is extremely common for individuals who abuse substances to have additional mental health problems that co-occur. However, many do not know how to identify if they are indeed attempting to self-medicate and how they can change this harmful behavior. When substance abuse and mental health conditions collide, a person may be diagnosed as having co-occurring disorders.
Many mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are often recognized as a driving factor behind a person’s abuse of drugs or alcohol. However, the directionality or sequence of the two conditions isn’t always straightforward.
Early intervention is essential in all instances of problematic substance use. An individual can quickly cross the line between self-medication and full-blown addiction, so recognizing an impending problem as early as possible and appropriately addressing it is vital.
An estimated 7.7 million adults in the U.S. are currently experiencing the converging effects of having both a mental health condition and substance use disorder (SUD). Among those who use substances, around 38 percent also have a mental health diagnosis.
Below, we discuss some ways to identify self-medication with drugs and alcohol in yourself or someone close to you and address it before a clinically defined substance use disorder develops.
What Does It Mean to Self-Medicate?
Self-medicating refers to the abuse of substances to manage a mental health disorder’s distressing symptoms or another health issue. Although many people who self-medicate have a concurrently diagnosed health condition, such as mental illness or chronic pain, it’s imperative to remember that a former diagnosis is not required for a person to begin engaging in self-medication.
People may turn to self-medication for a few different reasons. For example, substances may seem to make the symptoms of a distressing experience, such as an illness or mental health disorder, seem more manageable in the moment. Or, sometimes, people who abuse substances have not identified another way to cope with their feelings or co-existing health condition. And finally, the abuse of substances tends to contribute to or exacerbate mental and physical health issues.
People commonly report using substances to cope with specific mental illnesses such as mood and anxiety disorders. Moreover, in one review of various scientific literature, one study found that early 22 percent of people with an anxiety disorder reported self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Another study found that more than 21 percent of persons affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had used drugs or alcohol to cope with their mental and emotional issues, as did approximately 23 percent of individuals with major depression and 41 percent of those with bipolar disorder.
As mentioned, self-medicating can occur even if a person doesn’t have a formally diagnosed mental health condition. Challenging life events, such as grief, trauma, and abuse, can adversely affect a person’s mental health and drive some to turn to alcohol or drugs as a misguided coping mechanism.
According to recent research, the experience of grief results in increased substance use. Furthermore, this is also true when a person is in an abusive relationship or has experienced significant trauma. In fact, adolescents with SUD are three times more likely to have experienced a traumatic event than substance abuse-free adolescents.
Why Self-Medicating Is Harmful
Self-medicating might appear innocuous at first go on for an extended period entirely undetected. An individual might innocently use alcohol or drugs to feel better at that particular moment, in part because American culture somewhat normalizes the use of alcohol and certain drugs to “take the edge” off their mood.
Over time, however, self-medicating can complicate the management of mental health problems and contribute to developing a substance use disorder. For example, cocaine use has been associated with a worsening of symptoms and worsened progression of bipolar disorder.
Problematic substance use can, in some instances, also lead to semi-permanent or irreversible functional brain changes that might predispose some who are susceptible to develop additional mental health issues, such as mood, psychotic, and impulse-control disorders. Scientists have associated the use of marijuana, for example, with a higher risk of experiencing early-onset psychosis. Moreover, the younger the age of first marijuana use, the greater this risk increases.
Therefore, using substances as a coping mechanism for a mental illness may increase the risk of a person developing a substance use disorder, exacerbate one or more existing mental health conditions, or even instigate the emergence of a new problem.
Self-Medicating for Depression and Other Mental Health Issues
As noted, cocaine use among persons with bipolar disorder can worsen mental illness. Likewise, abusing intoxicating substances to self-medicate for other mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, and more, can also have adverse outcomes.
Marijuana use among people with depression, for example, has been found to be associated with worse treatment outcomes for depression. Treating depression and substance abuse in conjunction can have positive results for both issues. Among persons who suffer from anxiety and substance abuse issues, it is common to see that anxiety adversely impacts their substance use habits. This effect, in turn, can make anxiety worse.
Furthermore, in people with schizophrenia, alcohol use leads to worse outcomes than those who do not use alcohol. It has become more recognizable that, for optimal recovery outcomes, treatment of co-occurring conditions should simultaneously address both issues.
Both depression and anxiety and depression are also often side effects of drug withdrawal when an individual abuses a substance regularly and becomes dependent upon it.
How to Quit Self-Medicating and Get Treatment
Compulsive self-medication suspected of having emerged in association with an untreated or improperly treated mental health condition can be halted by adequately managing all underlying problems. The standard of care for individuals with a substance use disorder and co-existing mental health disorder is to seek help from a reputable treatment center that can address both issues simultaneously.
For dual diagnosis treatment, the relatively-intensive levels of care found at an inpatient or residential program may offer the most preferred treatment setting. Only a substance abuse professional experienced in treating dual diagnoses can ascertain whether or not you are self-medicating and what steps you should take to recover.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offer treatment for co-occurring disorders designed to treat all aspects of a person’s health and well-being from a holistic perspective. Our programs are research-based and offer a multi-faceted approach that includes psychotherapy, counseling, group support, health and wellness education, mindfulness therapy, aftercare planning, and more.
If you are self-medicating and need an intensive treatment program that can address both your substance use disorder and mental health issues, please know that you are not alone in your struggle. There are caring, qualified health providers that can help you reclaim your life and improve your overall mental and physical well-being.