Not everyone seeks professional help when dealing with the symptoms of possible mental illness, and some people try to remediate their situation on their own. Self-medication is the use of medicines or other substances by individuals, who are often hiding and denying self-diagnosed, underlying physical and mental health issues, to alleviate and treat said conditions.

However, self-medicating is not a responsible, healthy way to cope. It can quickly become problematic and have a detrimental impact on their mental health. Providing short-term relief, it doesn’t do much to treat the symptoms that this person may be facing. For health and safety reasons, it is important to know and understand the forms, purpose, and risks of self-medication, especially if you know or suspect that your loved one is self-medicating.

Forms of Self-Medication

Self-medication can be practiced safely when using prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, both common forms, responsibly without abuse. However, this is not always the case. Both prescription and illicit drugs can be abused by anyone. Detailed below are other common forms of self-medication to be aware of because they can be extremely dangerous when someone is unaware of the fact that he or she is self-medicating.

  • Food. Emotional eating, also known as “bingeing” and “comfort eating,” is a way to suppress negative emotions, temporarily soothing and reducing stress.
  • Psychostimulants: cocaine and amphetamines. These stimulant drugs are often used to elevate attention and focus, as well as euphoria and energy levels.
  • Central nervous system depressants: alcohol (i.e. wine, beer, etc.), benzodiazepines (i.e. Valium, Xanax, etc.), and prescription sleeping aids (i.e. Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta). They are used to improve mood, increase sociability, escape reality, and help a person sleep because in low dosages, alcohol temporarily reduces anxiety levels.
  • Caffeine: coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Caffeine is known for its ability to give you a short-term high, increasing energy levels, and better overall mood.
  • Cannabis: marijuana. Cannabis is used to improve mood, elevate relaxation, and escape from reality.
  • Opiates and opioids: heroin and prescription pain relievers (i.e. Codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin, etc.). Opiates and opioids are commonly used to combat and soothe depression, pain, and anxiety while elevating relaxation.

Approximately 50 percent of Americans struggling with mental illness currently rely on drugs to escape their conditions and are suffering from addiction. These forms are frequently used by anyone who does not have the resources and knowledge required to treat their conditions using effective, safe methods, such as therapy and controlled intake of prescription drugs according to professional diagnosis.

Reasons for Self-Medicating

Many of the forms of self-medication listed above are largely used for similar purposes, such as regulating energy levels and escaping emotional negativity and reality. Stress, mental illness, and physical pain induce conditions that are difficult to deal with, particularly if they are long-term issues. These three symptoms sum up the main reasons that people turn to self-medication.

  • Pain. Most Americans who suffer from chronic pain are prescribed opioids, or painkillers because they help to manage and reduce the pain that they experience. People who suffer from chronic pain may also use drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain if they cannot access painkillers.
  • Stress. A devastating percentage of Americans suffer from moderate to high stress on a daily basis, often triggered by socioeconomic stressors. Stress leads to both physical and psychological symptoms that are tough to handle on your own. Causing many to turn to mood-altering substance for relief, it is a significant contributor to the continuation of alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Mental illness. Right now, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health disorders in the United States, affecting millions of people. Many turn to substance use when they have difficulties regulating extreme emotions and lifestyle areas that can often be triggered, such as self-esteem, relationships, and self-care.

Consequences of Self-Medication

When done responsibly, here are a few benefits linked to self-medicating, including increased access to medication and relief, active role in your own health care, and access to knowledge and skills of physicians and pharmacists. However, prescription drugs can be abused, and these benefits can be largely outweighed by the potential risks of self-medicating in the case of non-responsible, uncontrolled, and unhealthy behavior. The self-medication hypothesis suggests that people use substances as a coping mechanism and response to mental illness and other symptoms, which often leads to substance abuse and substance use disorders. Anyone is capable of it.

When self-medicating, you may self-diagnose incorrectly, especially if you are not a licensed health professional. If relying on a self-diagnosis, you may also delay seeking medical advice even when needed due to the temporary relief resulting from prescription and/or illicit drug use. These actions may lead to infrequent but severe harmful reactions to the substances, incorrect dosage and method of administration. When self-medicating in an unsafe way, your health conditions are likely to be heightened with a huge risk of dependence and abuse, which could lead you to hide or mask a severe disease that has not been medically diagnosed.

Self-medication is one of the current leading causes of addiction and substance abuse. Addiction to substances can lead to decreased self-esteem, intensified depression and anxiety symptoms, and negatively impacted physical health. This makes the underlying conditions worse. If you notice a loved one showing worsened physical and emotional conditions, as well as possible signs of addiction, you should seek help immediately.

Getting Help is Essential

If you think that a loved one is not self-medicating in a healthy way and/or is suffering from substance abuse, it is time to seek professional help. The consequences can be life-threatening if left unaddressed. But it is never too late because anyone can achieve overall improved health and sobriety through detox and therapy with the help of professionals.

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