Let's Talk About Self-Medicating

Let’s talk about a topic that is very taboo and the cause of a lot of guilt and shame in the mental health community: self-medicating. Substance abuse is unfortunately very common, especially among those with an untreated mental illness. This doesn’t make it OK, but we need to acknowledge it happens if we’re actually going to deal with it.

The fact is, many people with a mental illness choose to self-medicate. Sometimes you get to the point where you can’t take the mental, emotional and even physical pain anymore and you reach out for anything that can help. Some choices are more destructive than others. Since mental illness can cause irrational feelings, these decisions can be irrational and can cause significant harm in the long run. This can also lead to or influence destructive and fatal behaviors including self-harm and suicide.

Unfortunately, many healthcare providers make the situation worse by shaming their patients when they open up about this topic. Not only does this not help, it causes further shame and can continue the ruthless cycle of self-medicating, guilt, shame and more self-medicating. Poor reactions can also teach people to hide it, which is something those of us with a mental illness may already struggle with. We need to be more open, not more closed off. We need providers who can have the delicate balance of empathy, understanding and willingness to help someone struggling with self-medication.

On this topic, I can speak from experience. I’ve had providers who weren’t helpful at all. Shame and guilt are horrible motivators. Since I have depression and experience suicidal thoughts, the last thing I need is someone to help me feel even more guilty and shameful. I need help getting out of the destructive spiral, not someone to push me further down into it.

The political focus regarding substance abuse is often on the substance itself, but in reality, it is only a symptom of a much deeper issue. If we want to address substance abuse in the mental health community, we need to first deal with the mental health problems that lead to it. Without proper access to mental health services and providers, we are setting people up for failure. I’m very fortunate to have a support system, but many people don’t have that luxury. Just think of how many lives and families could be spared with access to quality help.

If this is a topic all too real for you, I hope you know you’re not alone. Help is available and you don’t have to hide it. There is a better way. Find a doctor and therapist you can trust and tackle the problem head on. We’re all in this together.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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