Dr. Cali Estes - The Addiction Coach ®

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Dangers of Self-Medication to Treat Mental Illness

Dangers of Self-Medication to Treat Mental Illness


Addiction is rooted in brain chemistry. In fact, one of the leading causes for the development of an addiction is based on the pre-existing mental condition of an individual. Often times, an individual who has a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness will self-medicate to treat themselves, most commonly using drugs and alcohol. There are plenty of external factors that influence the development of an addiction, such as social pressure, curiosity, boredom, and others, but many times, drugs and alcohol are consciously and subconsciously used to mask symptoms of a mental health issue.

Currently in the United States, roughly 10% of people over the age of 12 have abused an illegal drug in the last month. In 2015, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with over 52,000 lethal drug overdoses, opioids being the majority drug used with over 20,000 deaths and heroin with nearly 13,000. In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that close to 3 million American adults used an illegal drug for the first time in that year alone. Of roughly 44.7 million American adults suffering from a mental illness, more than 8.2 million also suffer from a substance use disorder. This means nearly 20%, or 1 in 5 Americans suffering from a mental illness are also struggling with substance abuse. Common substances used to self-medicate for mental illness are:


Known as uppers, stimulants include substances such as adderall, ritalin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and more. These types of substances are used to increase energy, focus, and provide the user with feelings of euphoria. These could stem from mental illnesses such ADHD and depression.


Known as downers, these drugs target the central nervous system, and include drugs such as: valium, xanax, alcohol, ambien, benzos, and more. These drugs could be administered by an individual seeking to self-medicate for untreated insomnia, anxiety, or depression.


Opioids include drugs such as morphine, fentanyl, vicodin, oxycontin, and heroin. Opioids addictions often form when someone suffers from debilitating physical pain. This pain could result from an accident and be treated by a physician, however many people suffer in silence from chronic pain illnesses.

Correlation Between Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

Repeated survey results from the National Survey and Drug Use and Health has revealed a repeated correlation between substance abuse and mental illness. In fact, persons diagnosed with a mental illness are nearly twice as likely to be at risk for abusing a substance, no matter what the substance.

Of those suffering from mental illness, risk of alcohol dependence is nearly three times vs. that of someone with no mental illness. And in the case of a serious mental illness (SMI) is more than 4 times as likely.

The 2016 survey revealed a similar overlap in the number of co-occurring diagnosis between mental illness (MI)  and a substance use disorder (SUD). The graph below shows the significant overlap.

Past Year Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Mental Illness among Adults Aged 18 or Older: Numbers in Millions, 2016



Alt tag: 2016 National Survey of Drug Use & Health Graph

The Dangers of Self Medicating for Mental Illness

When using drugs & alcohol, many changes occur within the brain that can cause lasting ramifications. Some, such as euphoria, escape from reality, or numbness of pain, are highly desired by the individual using. However, over time, repeated use of these substances gradually alters the brain chemistry of the user. By overloading the brain with chemically induced pleasure, the body grows used to certain levels and a dependency sets in.

Once the dependency on a substance is formed, the brain will continue to function under the assumption that it will maintain the artificially imposed chemical balance. When a substance wears off or is removed, the body experiences withdrawals and cravings that will aggravate and worsen any existing mental illness symptoms.

The abuse of psychotropic drugs such as marijuana, lsd, and acid may even exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. This could include psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations, and traits of schizophrenia.

Likewise, early exposure to certain substances has the potential for affecting the brain in ways that significantly increase the risk for developing mental disorder. The developing brain remains highly susceptible to influencing factors, especially chemical imbalances. This is why it’s important to avoid exposure at an early age, as habits ingrained during the developmental stage of the brain become ingrained.

How to Treat Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Disorder

The high correlation and danger associated with the relation between mental illness and substance abuse necessitates a comprehensive treatment program that addresses both aspects. This means that anyone seeking help for either drug addiction or mental disorder would likely benefit from exploring treatment options for both.

Behavioral therapies should be used in tandem with tested medications such as Suboxone, methadone, and others. It’s highly recommended that a professional consultant designs a Medication Assisted Recovery treatment that incorporates a highly tailored therapeutic and after-care program.


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