The Harm of Self-Medicating Behaviors

Have you ever had a cold?  Did you run to your local market and pick up an over-the-counter medication for the symptoms of that cold?  The answer is probably “yes,” because that is why OTC medications exist. As a society, we don’t run to our doctors every time we catch a case of the sniffles; however, when those sniffles become bronchitis, we do tend to seek out the advice of a medical professional. After all, it is possible for what we think is a simple head cold to manifest into something far more severe, such as pneumonia. Pneumonia can be life-threatening and it requires the attention of a doctor in most cases.

What if the condition being treated is as simple as a common cold, however?  What if someone we love is self-medicating something far more severe, such as anxiety, depression or even schizophrenia? Unfortunately, this type of behavior happens all the time and the individuals taking part may not even realize they are doing it.

According to the experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are several reasons why individuals begin to abuse drugs. Some people take drugs to feel good; they like the euphoria that comes along with illicit drug use and the risks of being “different” or engaging in rebellion. Others take drugs to feel better. We’re not talking about someone who is celebrating a promotion so they want to paint the town red. Rather, we’re talking about those individuals who suffer from some kind of physical or mental disorder that makes them feel badly, and they don’t want to feel badly anymore.

self-medicatingHow Does Self-Medicating Behavior Start?

Self-medicating can begin in two ways. The first is the unintentional use of illicit drugs that makes the person feel better. This individual may not even realize that the drugs they are taking are “treating” a condition. They may not even be aware they have a condition. Sure, they may recognize that they get a little anxious when they are in large groups of people. A couple of drinks make them less inhibited. A few more drinks and they find they are the life of the party and their anxiety has all but vanished. This same person may be suffering from a social anxiety disorder that would be better treated in a healthier manner.

Another manner of self-medication comes in the form of abusing one’s prescription drugs. Suppose this same individual knows they have an anxiety disorder, and they have a prescription to treat it. Unfortunately, they don’t trust their doctor’s judgment on the dosage because their anxiety has returned after only a few doses. They have been to the doctor and they have a diagnosis, so they don’t feel any compunction about increasing, or even doubling, their prescribed dose to increase the effects. What they may not realize is that they are experiencing a normal adjustment period known as tolerance. When their body became accustomed to the drugs in their system, some of the effects were less noticeable. If they were concerned about it, they should have contacted their doctor to have their dosage adjusted more responsibly, or they may have even been switched to a different medication. By increasing their dosage on their own, they have hastened the period where tolerance develops. When this happens, they are increasing their chances for addiction.

Addiction Is a Chronic Disease

Anytime a person experiments with drugs, whether the drugs are purchased from a dealer on the street or prescribed in a medical setting, they place themselves at risk for addiction. Addiction can strike anyone, regardless of their age, social standing, financial resources or family situation. There is currently no cure for addiction, although effective treatment can help those afflicted overcome the symptoms of the disease and lead a productive, happy life. The effects of addiction can be quite terrible if they are left untreated.

For instance:
  • Individuals suffering from addiction will often choose drugs over their own family members, including their children, when setting their priorities.
  • Substance abuse and dependence can cause physical illnesses and long-term health effects that remain long after the drug use as stopped.
  • Drug use can lead to legal problems, including arrests for public disturbances and intoxicated driving.
  • Drug abuse can cause an individual to make unwise decisions that can affect their health by exposing them to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • The compulsion to use drugs can make an individual visit people and places that are inherently dangerous to obtain the drugs they “need.”

Doctors Have Specific Guidelines When Prescribing Medications

doctorThere are other inherent dangers with this kind of behavior that one should take into consideration. For instance, when you visit a doctor to receive any kind of prescription, the doctor generally performs a cursory examination to determine the cause of your symptoms. If you complain of a stuffy nose, for example, the doctor may look in your ears. They perform this examination to determine the extent of your illness. They may base their decision on which drugs to prescribe around the level of severity they observe.

Next, the doctor will determine what they hope to achieve through the use of the medication. Do they want the individual to breathe a little easier? Does the doctor want to alleviate feelings of anxiety?  Perhaps the immediate goal is to allow their patient to sleep through the night because the cold is keeping them awake. Whatever the objective is, the doctor will choose the appropriate medication, if medication is necessary at all.

Every drug that is legally prescribed in the United States goes through a procedure to determine the benefits and risks, as well as to determine which ailments are best treated by which drug. There are, quite literally, thousands of options available. The training that a doctor receives when a new drug comes available is extensive, and they use this training when deciding which drug to prescribe. When an individual self-medicates, they do not have this extensive information base upon which to rely. They may be medicating themselves with a highly addictive drug, when a non-narcotic drug would have worked just as well or better.

Did you know that exercise is a treatment for arthritis for many people? If someone is suffering from joint pain, they may have arthritis. They may also have a family member who receives a prescription of a narcotic painkiller. Because they don’t know that simply increasing the amount of exercise they get during the day would alleviate a great deal of their pain, they begin taking their loved one’s prescription. Worse, they may not be suffering from arthritis at all. They may have a more serious condition that will go undiagnosed. Doctors are trained to rule out certain conditions, such as cancer, based on the collection of symptoms they learn about through the exam process. They also make a decision based upon an interview with their patient regarding family history of illness. Someone who has a family history of bone cancer, for instance, may receive further testing if the symptoms require it, rather than a quick fix in the form of a pill. Certainly, the doctor would give them alternatives to medical prescriptions to help them overcome their pain.

Finally, doctors are trained to give explicit instructions to their patients about the drugs they prescribe. They gather information concerning any other medications the individual might be taking, even over-the-counter or herbal remedies, in case they will affect each other. Some drug interactions can be quite dangerous, even deadly. Even the foods we eat can affect how our prescriptions work in our bodies. Without proper evaluation, such as when an individual decides to take an illicit drug or “borrows” prescription to self-medicate, the risk of these types of interactions increases.

 How to Help Someone Who Is Engaging in Self-Medication

If someone you love is using prescription or illicit drugs to treat a medical condition, it is important that you take the time to educate them about the risks involved. They may not realize that their behavior can lead to addiction or to the worsening of an undiagnosed condition. When you approach them, be sure to refrain from using aggressive, blaming statements that will likely cause them to become defensive. If you have already addressed the issue with them and they are unwilling to change their behavior, you might consider hosting an intervention.

An intervention is a process by which family and friends of someone who is struggling with addiction presents them with an opportunity to get the help they need. If they do not accept the proffered help, there are specific consequences. The process is organized and can be quite beneficial in the long run as studies have shown that treatment does not have to be voluntary in order to be effective.

The steps to performing an intervention include:
  • Prepare an intervention team and arrange for a treatment facility ahead of time.
  • Educate the intervention team (generally close friends, family members, clergy or others who have a vested interest in seeing the individual get well) on the aspects of drug abuse and addiction.
  • Write letters to the individual that can be read aloud at the intervention, consisting of how the individual’s behavior has affected you, and what the consequences will be if they choose not to receive help.
  • Be prepared to act immediately if the individual accepts help. It is more important that they leave for treatment right away than for every member of the team to speak their piece.
  • Be prepared to follow through on the consequences should your loved one refuse treatment.

Self-medicating for a bona-fide psychological or medical condition is drug abuse, and it can lead to addiction. To find out more about how Axis can help you or a member of your family overcome this dangerous practice, please do not hesitate to contact us right away.