The Dangers of Self-Medicating

Does this scenario ring familiar? You feel blue or anxious, so you fix yourself a drink or two in the hopes that it will make you feel better. Sounds harmless enough and for the average person, it probably is. However, if you suffer from depression or anxiety, this can cause more harm than good.

People who have depression or anxiety often turn to alcohol, marijuana, painkillers and other narcotic drugs as a way to alleviate physical or emotional pain and discomfort. Physicians refer to this as self-medicating. Often self-medicating starts innocently with something mild and progresses to stronger substances.

Evidence supports a neurobiological association between depression and drug dependence. The rate of depression among drug users, and the rate of drug use among people with depression, is high. When depressed patients are treated with antidepressant medications, their mood improves and they reduce their use of other types of drugs.

While people often drink alcohol to relieve their depression, alcohol is actually a potent depressant--exacerbating depression, rather than diminishing it. Alcohol use can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of depression, and many depressive illnesses are associated with excessive use of alcohol. Furthermore, alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications for depression and can increase your risk of experiencing medication side effects.

Similarly, studies show that people who suffer from anxiety are especially vulnerable to becoming reliant on alcohol and risk becoming addicted. It's a vicious cycle: as the effect of alcohol wears off, it causes even greater anxiety, which increases the likelihood the person will drink.

Parents of depressed teens should take note. When teens self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs, it can worsen their depression and can lead to more serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, anxiety and even suicide. Depressed teens are twice as likely to use marijuana, twice as likely to use illicit drugs and twice as likely to abuse, or become dependent on, marijuana. Teens who smoke marijuana at least once each month are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. This is particularly worrisome since the potency of marijuana has increased dramatically over the years.

If you're depressed, talk to your doctor about treatment options before you find yourself caught in the proverbial snowball of self-medication. Use caution when drinking alcohol, drugs or other medications if you are taking antidepressant medications.