People with mental illnesses might abuse drugs or alcohol for reasons that would be familiar to people who don’t struggle with mental health. They might enjoy the sedation alcohol brings, for example, or they might feel as though a hit of cocaine is the only thing that can help them get through a busy day full of deadlines. These are the same sorts of reasons any drug user might cite in support of a habit.
But people who have mental illnesses might also use drugs or alcohol in order to help them cope with or treat their discomfort. This form of self-medication can be a little difficult for outsiders to understand, but it’s a very real phenomenon.
Hiding and Denying
Some people with mental illnesses haven’t ever been diagnosed, and as a result, they’re not getting the kind of care that could help them to get better. Even so, they might be dealing with very real dysfunction and pain, and they might be desperate to get some relief. They might feel that drugs just help them to get through the day, and while they might not have a sophisticated understanding of why they need help, they might feel as though they’re being proactive about their dysfunction when they take drugs.
A study of the issue in the journal Health Services Research suggests that the amount of drugs people take on a regular basis can be loosely tied to the number of times someone sees a doctor. Studies like this suggest that self-medication is used by people in need who just aren’t going to the right places for help.
Soothing Specific Symptoms
While some people use drugs as a replacement for mental health care, there are others who lean on drugs due to symptoms they’re quite aware of and hope to heal under their own power. For example, people who deal with social phobia may experience all sorts of terrible symptoms when they’re asked to:
- Speak in front of an audience
- Attend a crowded party
- Go to a job interview
- Participate in a conference
A study highlighted in ScienceDaily suggests that people who have these disorders often lean on drugs or alcohol, so they can medicate the symptoms of anxiety they feel and plow through these events with a touch of grace. Unfortunately, this study also suggests that people who self-medicate like this tend to develop yet more serious mental illnesses down the line. In the beginning, they might be dealing with only mild symptoms of anxiety, the authors say, but longstanding addiction tends to make those symptoms worse. In other words, self-medication might seem helpful. But in reality, it can deepen the difficulties a person might face.
Help Is Vital
Since self-medication can keep people from healing, and it could make some types of problems more acute, it’s vital for people to get help for their mental health concerns as early as possible. In a Dual Diagnosis treatment program, experts can provide some information about how drugs don’t really help with mental health, and they can provide the therapies that can allow sobriety to take hold and thrive, no matter what challenges may come. Please call us to find out more about programs just like this.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton