Substance Use and Mental Health: Why People Self-Medicate
Self-medication refers to the use of drugs or alcohol as an attempt to manage issues related to mental health. According to the 2018 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 20.3 million Americans aged 12 or over have a substance use disorder. There is no doubt that that number has skyrocketed over the last five years due to ease of gain and the pandemic.
Most individuals who use substances to self-medicate use them to cope with or alleviate the symptoms of their mental health struggles. Some use drugs to reduce symptoms, while others use alcohol, food, or even exercise.
3 Signs of Self-Medication
If you notice changes in behaviors or habits and suspect that they are signs of self-medication, you may be correct.
Signs of self-medication may include:
- One sign of self-medication with a drug or alcohol is that there is no growth or change in a positive direction. Self-medication can temporarily dull the symptoms and senses and may subdue the signs of a mental illness, but it can exacerbate mental health issues in the long run. Using a substance to mask symptoms cannot work forever and can lead to tolerance of the substance and addiction.
- A sign that a person is abusing a drug or alcohol to self-medicate is when the person has difficulty staying on task and does not complete work tasks or hold up to work responsibilities. This person may be struggling with their workload and may miss days of work due to their substance use.
- If the first thing a person turns to when stressed or upset is alcohol or drugs, this could be a sign of self-medication. When the initial craving is for a substance in any type of stressful situation, this may show that the person cannot relieve their symptoms on their own without the aid of a substance.
It is not uncommon for a person suffering from mental or physical pain to gravitate to the substance that alleviates their pain the most effectively. This can be detrimental due to the increasing tolerance to their substance of choice, where they will not achieve the same relief unless they continually increase the amount they use.
Substances and Mental Health
One of the most common ways people self-medicate is through alcohol abuse. Medicating with alcohol is a common way that people reduce the symptoms of depression or anxiety, especially in social situations. Unfortunately, alcohol is a depressant, and it will inevitably increase depression and anxiety, especially in the “come down” or hangover stage of use.
Alcohol is also a common self-medication tool for PTSD, as substance abuse is quite often linked to past or current trauma. PTSD symptoms may be dulled by alcohol in the short term, but it also can cause highs, lows, and unpredictable behavior.
Some self-medicating is done with uppers or cocaine, amphetamines, or even caffeine. This may be to alleviate symptoms of ADD, ADHD, or depression. As with most substances, this use can be complicated. It is used both to calm the symptoms of ADD and to “wake” the symptoms of depression, including apathy. Users may end up chasing the euphoric feeling they experienced with first use, causing addiction and tolerance.
Self-medicating is not always done with drugs or alcohol. Food can be abused as a way to relieve strong emotions, dull pain, and relieve feelings of loneliness. Food is often used as a distraction from feelings or thoughts.
Substance Use Begins to Be a Problem when It Is Used as the Answer
Regardless of the reason for self-medication, or the substance of choice, it is not the answer to mental health issues. Mental health is complex, and physical health is directly linked to mental health. Because of this, it is crucial for those suffering from mental health issues to take care of their physical health as well as mental. Substance abuse negatively affects the physical and mental body, impacting mental health in the long run in a negative way.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse, or self-medicating, there is hope. At Fifth Avenue Psychiatry, we specialize in mental health and substance abuse issues in executives, professionals, and those struggling to balance their professional and personal worlds. We’re here to help.
Dr. Glazer is featured in New York Magazine’s Best Doctors issue and has been recognized as a Castle Connolly Top Doctor since 2015.