By Nicole Beaver
Following up on the new smoking ban, it’s come to my attention that the issue of addiction has yet to be touched upon. It is a problem regarding mental health and has taken many forms aside from smoking. Overeating, gambling, drugs, alcohol, and sex are all things that can quickly become an addiction. But I think that’s a general subject that many have shed light on in the past. Most of us have seen anti-drug campaigns, have had lectures delivered in school halls, etc. But it seems that no one has spoken much about self-medication, an unhealthy coping mechanism that leads to addiction. So how do we combat it? How does it even get to such a point?
Let’s start with a disclaimer: I am not a licensed mental health practitioner, but I do extensive research and will be quoting often from what actual psychiatrists/psychologists say. So let’s begin with its definition. Self-medication is to choose and take medicines oneself rather than by prescription or based on an expert’s advice. In some cases, it includes taking addictive or habituating drugs to relieve stress/other conditions. “Medicines” do not only include drugs, but alcohol or food. This is not a method of controlling a problem, but in fact an addiction that may only temporarily alleviate symptoms. It could also lead up to symptoms that are much more severe. Those who struggle with mental health issues are often at risk for this type of addiction. It should be noted, however, that it’s not a huge percentage who actually do this. In fact, many individuals are able to cope through numerous outlets, which include meditation and participating in some kind of healthy self-care regimen. The groups who often participate in self-medication are usually those who haven’t been diagnosed or those who have not been diagnosed properly, those in denial, or those who are unable to or don’t like the side effects of medications (Dual Diagnosis.org – Why People Self-Medicate). ScienceDaily’s article on their study about this issue and its correlation with people who have anxiety disorders also agree; “A total of 34,653 U.S. adults [were surveyed] and participants were separated into three categories: no self-medication, self-medication with alcohol only or self-medication with drugs (with or without the use of alcohol also). [quote continued below]
Of the participants who reported any substance use during the prior year, 12.5 percent reported self-medicating with alcohol and 24.4 percent with other drugs. Additionally, 23.3 of participants with diagnosable substance use disorders at baseline self-medicated with alcohol and 32.7 percent with drugs. Additionally, 12.6 percent of individuals who met criteria for a baseline anxiety disorder and self-medicated with alcohol developed an alcohol use disorder, while 4.7 percent and 1.7 percent of those who did not self medicate developed an alcohol use or drug use disorder, respectively.”
So what can one do to combat this? Well, first there is a disclosure; you cannot force someone to take their medication if they are refusing to take it on the account of side effects. Dr. Marc Lewis, in his article for Psychology Today Canada, writes that “iatrogenic (more harm than good) effects don’t actually contradict the argument for self-medication. Many medications produce iatrogenic effects—side-effects, dependency, systemic damage, and so forth.” If you or a loved one are taking a medication that is causing these iatrogenic effects, please talk to your doctor, therapist or psychiatrist about switching the medication, or discuss other options that do not involve medicine but still are healthy. Lewis also notes that gradually, it does not become the mental illness driving the need to medicate. Rather, it becomes the substance that demands continuous use. The second way to combat this is to end the shame. That’s how others see it, and in turn, that’s how we see it too. Addictive thoughts and deeds lead directly to often intense shame, and guess what? Shame is one of the most common byproducts of trauma. Those who do deal with addictions often are self-loathing and subjected to prejudice by society. When we learn to try and see past some of our stigma as to why someone may turn to self-medication, we are, in turn, more able to help.
Finally, I encourage my readers to see a mental health professional if you are dealing with a harmful self-soothing mechanism. While I understand that therapy isn’t cheap and getting a diagnosis even more expensive, we do have an on-site therapist and a Peer Support group to go to. It is also worth considering contacting an addiction hotline or trying a drug addiction therapy program, if possible. If you want to deal with it on your own, that is ultimately your choice. However, you are only able to help yourself. If you are reading this and have a partner, family member, or friend who is self-medicating, please do not be afraid to talk to them about your concerns. If they refuse your help or suggestions, do not push the issue unless they are in immediate danger of fatally harming themselves or others. Sometimes it is better to nudge than to shove when it comes to people. It is stressful, and it is painful for the parties involved with the afflicted person. But remember three crucial things: firstly, you are not to blame; secondly, you must protect yourself first and foremost, and lastly, you are not in control of other’s actions.
Stay safe, take care.