What picture comes to mind when you hear that someone mentally ill self-medicates? My mind immediately forms a mental image of an individual who is drunk or high.
Most people use the term self-medicate to describe someone mentally ill who uses alcohol and drugs to manage their symptoms instead of taking their medication or to fill in the gap when medication alone is not doing the trick.
Mental Illness Substance Abuse Statistics
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
- 50 percent of people with severe mental illness struggle with substance abuse.
- 37 percent of alcohol abusers have a severe mental illness.
- 53 percent of drug addicts have a severe mental illness.
- 29 percent of all people diagnosed with mental illness abuse either alcohol or drugs.
The statistics don’t lie. Mental illness paired with substance abuse is a mental health crisis. And while addressing mental illness and substance abuse is an important topic, I think it is equally noteworthy that there are numerous people living with mental illness who don’t use alcohol or drugs but self-medicate in other ways.
As a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I often have too many emotions. When I encounter an obstacle, my reaction seldom fits the circumstances. My mind inflates even minor incidents into huge and insurmountable stumbling blocks.
I take my medication as prescribed, and I am relatively stable, but medication is not a catch-all formula. I still feel everything a little deeper than the person sitting next to me. Medication only helps manage mental illness to a point. Every mentally ill person develops their own coping mechanisms.
So, what about those of us with mental illness who don’t abuse alcohol and drugs. What are other ways the mentally ill self-medicate?
Here are seven other ways the mentally ill self-medicate:
1. Cigarette Smoking
We could classify cigarette smoking in the drug category of substance abuse. It is certainly a practice that has harmful medical consequences, but people see smoking as an acceptable substance to abuse because it is legal.
Cigarettes were my drug of choice for 16 years. If you peeked inside my purse, you would have discovered six or seven lighters and multiple packs of cigarettes at all times. I’ve heard people compare cigarette addiction to heroin addiction. It is an apt description. When I was a smoker, the thought of not being able to get my nicotine fix was enough to cause anxiety.
2. Eating Disorders
Many people use food as their drug of choice. For those with eating disorders, their dysfunctional eating habits are all about control. When someone has areas in their life that are chaotic, they look for alternative methods of regaining autonomy.
For those of us who have a distorted relationship with food, we see food as a great equalizer. There is always a reason to overeat. We must eat to live, but we also use food to celebrate triumphs and to mourn losses.
Eating disorders are not without repercussions—whether the person is anorexic, bulimic or is a binge eater. Unhealthy eating habits lead to adverse medical conditions. Self-loathing occurs when a person feels powerless to change their complicated relationship with food.
While living with mental illness, your mind is not always a safe place to be, especially during emotional distress. It feels like the walls are closing in on you. Everything is just too much.
People use self-harm as a release. The pain felt from injuring themselves releases the troublesome emotions that are holding their mind hostage. Self-harm takes on many forms including cutting, burning, pulling out hair, banging your head on the wall, and even digging your fingernails into your arms or legs.
The trouble with self-harm is that the release felt is only momentary. Once that temporary high disappears, the problematic emotions are still present.
Pair difficult emotions with the hypersexuality associated with several mental illnesses, and promiscuity becomes a popular coping technique. Let’s be clear. The mentally ill are not the only people taking part in risky sexual behavior. It is a universal problem.
People use sex to feel powerful, and they enjoy the release it provides. Sex is a way of shutting down your brain, so you can numb out. Sex can be a way for someone to feel less alone and more alive.
There are consequences to promiscuity. A person may contract a sexually transmitted disease or have an unwanted pregnancy. Risky sexual behavior can even result in rape. Promiscuity leads to the destruction of relationships when a spouse or significant other engages in sexual entanglements outside the relationship.
Overspending is another coping technique used to self-medicate. People buy material things to make themselves feel better. Those expensive high heels, new wardrobe or even a new car cause the person to forget their problems for a moment.
That sense of well-being fades when it is time to pay for their distractions. Debt accumulates, sometimes with no money available to pay for all the luxuries purchased. And many times, it is the person’s family who pays the price.
The family must do without, or a spouse must pay down the debt. A person’s credit score can be permanently damaged. There can also be irreparable damage to relationships when the person’s significant other can’t trust them to be fiscally responsible.
6. Binge-Watching Television Shows
Binge-watching television shows has become all the rage because of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and multiple other streaming services. A person’s favorite entertainment is available 24/7. If someone finds a television series they love, they can watch every episode in record time—with no commercial interruptions.
Binge-watching may seem like an innocuous habit, but it can be as addictive as any drug. When I am overwhelmed, I hide in my bedroom and binge-watch my favorite shows.
Binge-watching does the job for me when excessive emotions flood my brain. It helps me get out of my head. Staring at the screen for hours on end helps me reboot my brain.
But there is a cost. Your family may believe that your favorite television show is more important than they are. Time reserved for your family is spent with the television characters you now identify as your friends.
7. Social Media Overload
We all do it. We can’t spend one minute without scrolling through our smart phone or other electronic device. Instead of living in the real world, we self-medicate by reading endless social media posts highlighting the best and worst moments of everyone’s life.
As you scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed, no one gets hurt. Right? Wrong! When a person spends hours on social media day after day, one of two things occurs. They either feel better about their life at the expense of someone else’s heartache, or they feel horrible about their life when compared to the photoshopped snapshots of their thousands of social media fake friends.
We think the mentally ill self-medicate typically by abusing alcohol and drugs, but there are a variety of coping mechanisms they engage in to help them navigate the everyday struggles of life.
If someone who is mentally ill is not receiving proper treatment to manage their disease, they will find other methods to keep the symptoms in check. Even if that individual is following their treatment plan to the letter, many still self-medicate to deal with difficult circumstances and emotions.
The mentally ill don’t have the market cornered on self-medicating. Everyone faces obstacles in life and adopts techniques to help work through those moments that are just too much. Self-medicating occurs when anyone uses substances or other behaviors to cope with overwhelming emotions and situations.
There is no easy remedy for the self-medicating epidemic. Everyone’s journey is unique. If the person doesn’t think their self-medicating habits are an issue, it will be that much harder to find a solution.
A person must want to get better. They must address the behavior head on and pursue the help they need—whether it be professional help or simply being self-aware enough to recognize the circumstances that trigger them.
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I love the article, its very timely written!
Thanks, Jenny! I am glad you enjoyed it.