The Dangers of Self-Medication for Mental Health Issues

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Above close up view of man hand taking medicine pills on a blue wooden table- health and cure for people disease - pharmacy concept

Here are some familiar scenes that are easy to imagine:

Had a stressful day? End the evening on the couch watching Netflix with a bowl (or two, or three) of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Feeling awkward in a social setting? Drink a few beers to help you relax.

Having trouble sleeping? One sleeping pill won’t hurt. Okay, maybe two.

Need to meet a tight deadline for a study assignment or work project? Drink copious amounts of coffee to keep you alert, focused and motivated.

We turn to substances to change the way we feel, and often it often begins innocently enough. However, when there are deeper problems—mental health issues—and we start to rely on substances to be able to cope with daily life, it can border on dangerous.

Let’s face it: today’s world has become increasingly stressful, and mental health challenges are steadily rising. In fact, a 2021 survey indicates that more than one in five people in America have a mental illness. The math? That’s 57.8 million people.

Many people facing emotional and psychological challenges will turn to self-medication to help them cope, for example, with depression, anxiety, and stress.

While the motivation behind self-medication may be to simply find relief, this practice can pose serious dangers to someone’s mental and physical health over time.

Let’s take a closer look at what it means to self-medicate. Then, explore the potential harm self-medication can cause. Finally, we’ll discuss the importance of seeking professional help instead.

Understanding self-medication

Self-medication refers to the act of treating one’s own health symptoms and conditions without professional guidance or supervision.

Self-medication for mental health issues can take various forms, including the misuse of:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription medications
  • Illicit drugs
  • Food
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine

The reasons behind self-medication are often multifaceted, ranging from avoiding the stigma associated with mental health problems to limited access to proper mental health care.

Some people may use substances to alleviate anxiety, depression, or other emotional distress temporarily, believing it offers a quick fix. However, self-medicating in this way never works in the long term. It only masks underlying problems and fails to address the root causes of mental health issues.

The risks associated with self-medication

As mentioned, self-medicating never solves mental health problems but does have potential risks, which include:

Self-medication can be ineffective

The appeal of self-medication lies in its immediate gratification.

However, this approach is fundamentally flawed because while it may mask symptoms, it doesn’t address the underlying issues. Think of self-medication like putting a band-aid on a deep wound that needs stitches. Sure, you’re covering it up, but the wound needs internal work that a simple band-aid doesn’t provide.

Mental health problems are complex and often require comprehensive and personalized treatment plans tailored by professionals. Relying on self-medication may easily lead to a cycle of dependence, as explained next.

Self-medication can lead to potential substance abuse and addiction

pills and addiction

Self-medication often involves using addictive substances, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, or stimulants.

Self-medication can turn into substance abuse before you even realize it. The potential for addiction creates a new set of challenges that exacerbate the original mental health issues. The self-destructive cycle is easy to fall into because it’s hard to step back and see it for what it is.

This is backed by research. According to studies published by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individuals who engage in self-medication for mental health issues are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders.

The study emphasizes the need for early intervention and proper treatment to prevent the onset of addiction-related problems.

Self-medication may mask underlying mental health issues

Self-medication provides only temporary relief, leading people to believe they have successfully “fixed” their mental health problems. However, in reality, the underlying issues are still lingering below the surface and have no choice but to worsen over time due to neglect.

By self-medicating, individuals miss out on the opportunity to address the underlying concerns properly, which may lead to mental health deterioration and an increased risk of psychiatric emergencies.

Self-medicating may delay professional diagnosis and treatment

How many times have you heard someone say something like, “I don’t need help—I can handle this on my own”? It’s a common mindset and one that keeps people isolated from the help they need.

Self-medication can deter people from seeking professional help for their mental health issues. The temporary relief provided by self-medication may create a false sense of control, leading individuals to believe they do not need professional intervention.

Consequently, individuals may postpone seeking help and treatment, causing further harm and potentially complicate their mental health conditions.

Self-medicating may interfere with prescribed medication’s effectiveness

Sometimes individuals who are already receiving prescribed medication for their mental health issues may attempt to self-adjust their dosage or combine it with other substances.

This practice can have severe consequences, as self-medication can interfere with the effectiveness of prescribed medications or lead to dangerous drug interactions. Additionally, individuals may unintentionally worsen their mental health symptoms by misusing medications.

A study published through Health Services Research (HSR) highlights the risks of self-medication interfering with medication effectiveness. The study emphasizes the importance of “timely screening” and that “treatment of mental health problems may prevent the development of substance-use disorders among those with mental disorders.”

Self-medication may exacerbate mental health symptoms

close-up shot of depressed young man with glass of whiskey

Self-medication often exacerbates mental health symptoms in the long run. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant of the central nervous system. If someone with depression consistently uses alcohol to self-medicate, their depression may worsen.

Some prescribed and illicit drugs may provide temporary relief, but they can also intensify feelings of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues when their effects wear off. This vicious cycle can lead to increased emotional distress, making it even more challenging for individuals to cope effectively with their mental health problems.

Self-medication isolates individuals from the support available through mental health professionals

Treating mental health issues often requires a multidimensional approach that combines therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Simply “prescribing a pill” for mental problems should not be the norm and typically isn’t.

Mental health professionals can provide tailored treatment plans, monitor progress, and offer guidance throughout the recovery process. However, the act of self-medicating denies individuals the necessary support system that can greatly improve their chances of successfully managing their mental health.

A word about self-care

You may hear someone who is self-medicating say that they are engaging in “self-care.” Certainly, self-care has been a buzzword in the mental health realm recently.

Let’s make a distinction between self-care and self-medication. They are related in the sense that they both involve actions taken by people to address their health needs. However, their goals differ significantly.

Young woman in the kitchen preparing healthy food

Self-care focuses on promoting overall physical and mental health through activities such as:

The primary goal of self-care is to prevent or reduce the risk of mental health issues and maintain a balanced and fulfilling life.

On the other hand, self-medication involves attempting to treat specific health conditions, including mental health issues, without professional guidance or supervision.

It often involves self-diagnosing and then using substances, such as drugs and alcohol, to alleviate or manage any mental health symptoms. The goal of self-medication is to find immediate relief or escape from emotional pain without addressing the underlying causes.

While both self-care and self-medication are actions taken by individuals to address their mental health needs, it is important to recognize the fundamental differences between them. 

Self-care is a proactive and preventive approach that promotes overall well-being, whereas self-medication is a reactive and potentially dangerous approach that seeks temporary relief. 

The takeaway

While self-care is essential for maintaining mental health, self-medication for mental health issues poses serious risks that include:

  • Misdiagnosis
  • Delayed professional intervention
  • Masking underlying conditions
  • Substance abuse
  • Worsened mental health issues
  • Lack of support and guidance

Seeking professional help from qualified mental health practitioners is crucial in effectively managing mental health issues. By prioritizing professional care and evidence-based treatments, individuals can break free from the cycle of self-medication. Recovery is possible.  

How Tikvah Lake Recovery Center can help

Tikvah Lake Recovery Center is a specialized facility dedicated to helping people who are struggling with mental health issues and addictions.

With a team of experienced professionals, we offer evidence-based treatments, detoxification programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and holistic wellness to address the physical, psychological, and emotional aspects of mental health.

Through our comprehensive approach, Tikvah Lake Recovery Center provides individuals with the necessary tools and support to achieve sustainable recovery from a wide range of mental health conditions.

Contact us today to talk about how our programs can support you or a loved one toward lasting recovery.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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