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Mental Health Awareness

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The dangers of self-medicating

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2017 11.1 million Americans 12 and older misused prescription pain relievers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (OxyContin®) and morphine. People use—and abuse—alcohol and drugs for many reasons, but one of the most common is to mask or reduce symptoms of mental illness.

Many mood and anxiety disorders often co-occur with substance abuse, as people use medication to calm the central nervous system and temporarily relieve or mask psychological symptoms. Research shows that approximately 50 percent of individuals suffering from a mental illness also struggle with substance abuse, and vice versa. This is particularly true with teenagers and young adults.

“Being an adolescent is full of difficult and confusing experiences and feelings,” says Jodie Altman, Campus Director for Kids Escaping Drugs. “Instead of asking an adult for help, kids will oftentimes turn to friends. This is the time when they might begin to experiment with drugs/alcohol.

“When I entered the field 32 years ago, substance use disorders and mental illness were treated separately,” says Altman. “But we’ve learned they are very much intertwined, particularly with kids. On our campus, 65 percent of our patients are experiencing co-occurring disorders. It is difficult being a teenager, but couple that with mental illness and the situation becomes more volatile.”

Altman says masking the real issues by self-medicating often means a person doesn’t get any treatment, or the correct treatment, which delays the improvement or cure of their illness.

Triggers leading to self-medication can include not feeling the way you know you should and experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, particularly after a trauma. Kids often get prescriptions for physical ailments from their primary care doctors, who are unaware of their addiction or underlying mental health problems. “They tell their friends to go to their doctors with the same symptoms in the hopes they will get a similar medication, which just complicates the issue,” Altman says.

How can you tell if someone is self-medicating? Look for a change in attitude, loss of interest in family, friends and social activities, a decline in personal hygiene, self-isolation or lack of energy. “If you feel something in your gut, go with that, as you know your loved one,” says Altman. “Ask questions, tell them you love them, what you are seeing and ask if you can help. Initially they may reject your offer but keep trying!”

When self-medication is confirmed, don’t be embarrassed, try to solve the problem alone or keep it in the family. Acknowledge the problem and seek professional help and treatment as soon as possible.

“Nobody sets out to overdose,” says Altman. “But kids don’t understand that mixing drugs can be dangerous or deadly. They think they’re invincible.”

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