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Self-Medicating for Issues of Mental Health: What Is It and What Are the Dangers?

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What Does Self-Medicating Mean?

Self-medicating means abusing drugs or alcohol to manage symptoms of a mental health disorder or other illness. It’s a common form of substance abuse.

According to a survey, 77% of Americans have reported self-medicating for a health condition.

Read on to learn more about the substances, risk factors, dangers, and treatment options for self-medicating.

What Substances Do People Most Commonly Self-Medicate With?

People may self-medicate with both legal and illegal drugs. Here’s a list of some of the most common self-medication substances:

1)   Alcohol

Alcohol is perhaps the most common substance people use to self-medicate. This is mainly due to its easy availability and cultural acceptance.

People who use alcohol in this way are often trying to treat issues like anxiety or depression. However, the relief alcohol provides for these conditions is temporary, and symptoms actually worsen as the alcohol leaves the person’s body.

2)   Nicotine

Nicotine is another common self-medication drug. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance found in tobacco, as well as other products such as vapes. It produces a mildly stimulating effect in the person using it, temporarily improving concentration and alertness. Somewhat paradoxically, people also use it to relax – this is typically the case for people with nicotine dependence.

3)   Opioids

Opioids are a class of analgesics – drugs meant to treat pain. They can provide a powerful but temporary euphoria or “high.” However, this euphoria can also make them highly addictive, and fatal overdoses are a real danger when taking opioids. Opioids can be legal or illegal, depending on the specific type.

Some commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydromorphone, and hydrocodone, among others. Many people first become addicted to opioids via over-prescription from doctors. When the prescriptions stop (due to regulator crackdown), they then move to street drugs like heroin.

According to several studies, these are the most common drugs people use to self-medicate with.

4)   Cannabis

Cannabis is used for various reasons, including pain relief, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Some people find it helpful for managing chronic conditions and improving sleep quality. However, long-term use can lead to dependency, cognitive impairments, and worsening of mental health disorders.

The legal status of cannabis varies by location, which can affect accessibility and regulation of its use.

5)   Stimulants

Stimulants, including prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin, as well as illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, are often used to enhance focus, energy, and productivity. People might self-medicate with these substances to manage conditions like ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), combat fatigue, or improve academic or work performance.

However, misuse of stimulants can lead to addiction, cardiovascular problems, and severe mental health issues such as anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis. Long-term use can also result in tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects, increasing the risk of adverse consequences.

6)   Food

One extremely common substance people use to self-medicate isn’t a drug at all – it’s food. Many people resort to “binge-eating” or “comfort-eating” to deal with stress or sadness.

Self-medicating with food may provide temporary relief from stress in persons who are not clinically depressed. However, it can produce low self-esteem, an eating disorder, and harmful weight gain.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Medicating

Many people do not know they are self-medicating because the substances used are often (though not always) legal and accepted.

Prescription drugs and alcohol are commonly accepted and easy to obtain. Even marijuana is now legal – or at least enforcement against it is greatly deprioritized – in many places.

Knowing if you or a loved one is self-medicating requires careful examination of the motives and consequences surrounding the behavior.

Here are some common signs a person may be self-medicating:

  • The “medication” is used as a coping mechanism – People often turn to drugs or alcohol when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. Drinking to deal with stress at work or cope with depression is a sign that someone is self-medicating.
  • Self-medication worsens the situation – Self-medicating is a temporary solution. Once the effects of the substance wear off, the problem it was meant to fix can come back worse than before. A person’s sleep, energy, emotional well-being, and immune system can be compromised.
  • Increasing self-medication doses to gain relief – People who self-medicate may slowly increase their intake of the substance as their tolerance grows. This can lead to a variety of health problems.
  • Social, financial, and psychological issues – Self-medicating can cause problems in a person’s life that go beyond their physical health. For example, a person can end up spending down their savings, even going into debt, to fund their addiction. That person’s loved ones, peers, and work colleagues will also start to become concerned about their behavior.

Risk Factors for Self-Medication

Risk factors for self-medication include:


People with anxiety may resort to alcohol in an attempt to cope with their condition. They consider alcohol’s sedative effects to be an effective way to calm their nerves. Binge-eating is also a common way for some people to cope with anxiety.


Individuals with depression may turn to alcohol, cannabis, or prescription medications in an attempt to lift their mood or escape emotional pain. However, these substances can exacerbate depressive symptoms, leading to a vicious cycle of dependency and worsening mental health.

Bipolar Disorder

It’s not unusual for people with bipolar disorder to turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cope with their depressive or manic symptoms.

During mania, stimulants or alcohol may be used to sustain energy levels, while depressants may be used to calm down during depressive phases. This can result in increased mood instability and more severe manic or depressive episodes.


People with schizophrenia may self-medicate to relieve the depression or anxiety caused by living with such a severe condition.

Studies show that popular substances here include alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and cocaine.

Physical and Emotional Abuse

Studies indicate that 25 percent of people who have experienced abuse or trauma self-medicate with alcohol.

Abuse can lead to issues with anxiety, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anxiety and substance abuse can feed into each other, creating a vicious cycle. People with PTSD may resort to partying, drinking, illegal drugs, or binge eating to cope.

The Dangers and Risks of Self-Medication

When you self-medicate, you run the risk of addiction, harming your physical and mental health, and dangerous interactions with other drugs. Self-medication can also mask symptoms of serious illnesses, thus delaying proper diagnosis and treatment.

Once you become dependent on a substance, it can be difficult to quit without professional help. Seeking medical guidance is essential for safe and efficient therapy. If you or someone you know is self-medicating, reach out to a professional.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources and support in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service.

Contact a Resource Specialist

About the Author: Pierce Willans is an SEO professional who has written on addiction and mental health topics for over four years. He is fascinated by how drugs affect the brain and is passionate about teaching people about the hazards of substance abuse and the importance of treatment. You can find more of his writings at South Coast Behavioral Health.

July is BIPOC Mental Health Month

Observed each July and formerly recognized as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, BIPOC Mental Health Month highlights the unique mental health challenges and needs of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). Please join us in recognizing the struggles of BIPOC and bringing awareness to the need for adequate, accessible, culturally relevant mental health treatment, care, and services.

Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American people have higher rates of some mental health disorders and face greater disparities in getting help than White people, largely due to lack of access to services. With proper care, 70 – 90% of people with mental illness experience significant reduction in symptoms and improved quality of life. However, there are barriers to individuals seeking help for themselves or loved ones: access to and cost of treatment, stigma, and availability of local, culturally appropriate mental health care resources.

In 2022, Laurel House, the sponsor of rtor.org, established the Social Work Racial Equity Scholarship. The goal of the Scholarship is to cultivate more Black and Latino social workers who are committed to social change and increasing access to mental health care treatment by communities of color. Each year, a $10,000 scholarship is awarded to a Black or Latino student from Connecticut enrolled in a Master of Social Work program in Connecticut or New York. Two runner-up prizes of $1,000 and $500 are also awarded.

meet the scholarship winner and runners-up here

www.rtor.org and its sponsor Laurel House are committed to the advancement of racial equity and social justice and to making mental health services available to all.

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-drinking-alcoholic-drink-6603407/


The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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