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Self-Medicating for Mental Illness: Why Alcohol Only Makes Things Worse

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Many people who have addiction problems don’t realize that they are struggling with mental illnesses. This is because the symptoms of addiction and the symptoms of mental illness are often very similar and masque one another. Other individuals struggle with mental illness (no matter how severe) and choose to self-medicate with alcohol. However, self-medicating for mental illness is not only ineffective as the mental health problems are not being addressed, but is also very dangerous and can lead to more mental health and substance abuse issues down the road.

What Does Self-Medicating Mean Exactly?

Self-medicating is relatively straightforward, and it doesn’t always have to be for mental illness. Many people self-medicate when it comes to relatively universal situations. When we have a cold, instead of seeking medical attention we often just grab a medicine over the counter, or when we are overly tired we grab a coffee or some type of caffeinated beverage. These are all forms of self-medication as they are actions we take without professional advice to make ourselves feel better.

However, the previous examples are generally not what “self-medicating” is referencing. Most people reference self-medication as someone using substances to address an emotional state or emotional situation. However, many of these people do not realize that they are self-medicating for mental illness.

Why Is Self-Medicating for Mental Illness So Dangerous?

Self-medicating for mental illness is so dangerous because untreated mental illness can be so dangerous. When someone treats a mental illness with an unprescribed substance, they are not addressing the root/core causes of their issues. They are just “kicking the can down the road,” and they are further “beating up the can” in the process.

Self-medicating for mental illness is also dangerous because substances can exacerbate already potentially harmful mental health disorder symptoms. For example, if one is struggling with an anxiety disorder, certain substances have been shown to also cause anxiety. This is simply compounding the problems. One of these anxiety-inducing substances is alcohol. It is also one of the most common self-medicating substances that there is.

Why Is Self-Medicating for Mental Illness With Alcohol So Dangerous?

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S. and around the world. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), “219.2 million people ages 12 and older (78.3% in this age group) reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime,” and “60.0 million people ages 12 and older (21.5% in this age group) reported binge drinking in the past month.”

These are not insignificant numbers, and if we run with a cross-section of people who struggle with mental illness in the U.S., (which, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is one in five adults) one can see that many people who have mental illnesses also engage in alcohol and excessive alcohol use.

The primary dangers for drinking alcohol to self-medicate for mental illness is that the mental illness is only going to get worse (they are chronic diseases after all) and the potential to acquire alcohol use disorder (AUD) becomes much more likely. Then not only does an individual have mental illness but they then have a comorbidity of addiction, both of which need attention if they are to recover.

The Importance of Treating Co-occurring Disorders

Many people who engage in self-medicating for mental illness are not diagnosed for one issue or the other. This is because, as previously mentioned, one disorder often masques the other. Now, this is yet another reason why self-medicating with alcohol only makes things worse. A missed diagnosis can mean that one’s recovery can become stalled, which could lead to relapses.

Many people do not realize how common relapses are. According to the peer-reviewed write-up, Alcohol Relapse Prevention, “One primary concern in addiction treatment is the high rate of relapses within a short period after even the most intensive treatment. Many studies have shown relapse rates of approximately 50% within the first 12 weeks after completion of intensive inpatient programs that often last 4 to 12 weeks or more and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.”

Ultimately, self-medicating for mental illness with alcohol only makes things worse, both in the short term and in the long run. The best action to take when issues of mental illness arise is to reach out to professionals, none of whom are going to advise that alcohol is the solution to the problem.

Treating Addiction, Mental Illnesses, and Dual Diagnosis at Lantana Recovery

Here at Lantana Recovery, we understand how scary dealing with mental illness can be, which is why we also understand why many people reach for the bottle instead of the phone. We truly do. Many of us have been there ourselves.

But, we are here to tell you that recovery from all issues of mental illness and addiction is possible. We have done it ourselves. Now let us help you do the same.

Self-medicating with alcohol is very common for individuals struggling with mental illness (especially for those who struggle with anxiety disorders). However, it is important to remember the maxim, “There is nothing that a drink can’t make worse.” Self-medicating for mental illness is also particularly dangerous as it can overshadow any serious symptoms of the illness that are currently going on. Also, alcohol may interfere with certain mental health medications. If you feel like you or a loved one is struggling with issues of addiction, mental illness, or both, we can help. For more information on the dangers of self-medicating with alcohol for mental illness, please reach out to Lantana Recovery today at (866) 997-2870.

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Charleston South Carolina

Charleston South Carolina

Located on the historic peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina, Lantana Recovery takes a modern approach to Substance Use Disorder treatment, offering intensive clinical care while also immersing our clients in local Charleston culture.