Depression is classified as a mood disorder. It’s associated with feelings of sadness, loss, and anger. When someone is depressed, these symptoms restrict their everyday life. Treating depression is important and usually involves counseling, medication, or both.

However, not everyone seeks professional help to treat their depression. Some try coping with their symptoms on their own. One way this happens is through self-medication. This can be dangerous and cause far greater problems than simply not getting treatment from trained medical professionals.

The Self-Medication Hypothesis

The idea that substance abuse can be a form of self-medication is formally known as the self-medication hypothesis. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, this hypothesis was introduced in 1985. It states that alcohol and drug abuse is often used to cope with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression. It also suggests that people gravitate toward the substance that best medicates their particular condition.

However, not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. While it claims that people use substances as a response to mental illness, some say using substances to self-medicate can lead to symptoms of mental illness. For example, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that alcohol and other substances can make anxiety symptoms worse.

Whether it’s the cause or an effect, self-medication can impact mental health. Recognizing forms of self-medication can help you understand how substance abuse is related to depression and other mental conditions.

Self-Medicating with Food

Risks: decreased self-esteem, worsened depression symptoms

If you’re an emotional eater, you might self-medicate with food. Emotional eating is when food is used as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions. This practice is also called “binging.”

“Comfort eating” may temporarily reduce stress in those who aren’t clinically depressed, a recent study showed. However, binge eating is not a healthy way to treat depression. It can negatively impact self-esteem and make symptoms of mental illness worse.

Self-Medicating with Alcohol

Forms: beer, wine, liquor

Risks: addiction

In low doses, alcohol can temporarily relieve symptoms of depression. However, when used as regular treatment, it can lead to alcoholism, which worsens depression. Additionally, alcoholism requires months of recovery and can be extremely difficult to overcome.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another condition that frequently results in self-medicating with alcohol. Research shows that trauma is often linked to alcohol abuse.

Self-Medicating with Psychostimulants

Forms: cocaine, amphetamines

Risks: heart failure, death

People with mental health conditions often abuse psychostimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. This is most likely due to the feelings of euphoria these drugs can cause. However, cocaine can also cause addiction and depression.

Cocaine is considered a life-risking drug. It can be fatal when used as a recreational drug. Cocaine does major damage to the body ’s cardiovascular system. Common cocaine-related deaths occur as a result of sudden heart failure. Amphetamines speed up the function of the heart and carry the risk of a stroke.

Using these substances may distract from depression, but the “come-down” feeling after the drug has worn off hardly makes it an effective long-term solution for depression. In fact, cocaine users often find that it worsens their symptoms.

Self-Medicating with Caffeine

Forms: coffee, tea, energy drinks

Risks: increased feelings of depression and anxiety

Caffeine is a stimulant that comes in many forms such as coffee and tea. While coffee is popular for its ability to perk you up, the effects are only temporary. Once the high wears off, your insulin levels drop, creating feelings of confusion and depression. Caffeine can also heighten feelings of anxiety. One cup of coffee per day is recommended if you’re sensitive to the effects of caffeine.

Self-Medicating with Cannabis

Forms: marijuana

Risks: worsened symptoms of depression, legal consequences

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance among those with depressive disorders. It has been found effective in treating depression in small doses. However, too much marijuana can worsen symptoms of depression.

Aside from that, marijuana is still illegal in most states. There may be legal consequences to using marijuana to self-medicate.

Self-Medicating with Opiates and Opioids

Forms: codeine, heroin, methadone

Risks: worsened depression symptoms, death

Opiates are drugs derived from the poppy plant, including codeine and morphine. Any drug that mimics the effects of opiates is called an opioid. Opioids include heroin, oxycodone, and methadone.

The World Drug Report estimates that up to 32.4 million people worldwide use opiates and opioids annually. Depression is common among users of these drugs. When depression and opiate use or abuse are combined, the results can be deadly.

You Asked, We Answered

  • I think I might be self-medicating with alcohol. How can I be sure of this and what are my first steps for getting help?- Anonymous
  • The first and most important step is admitting that there is a problem. Look at the triggers that may be enticing you to drink. Ask yourself the following:

    • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
    • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
    • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
    • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

    The more times you answer “yes,” the more likely you have a problem with alcohol. You should seek counseling. If seeing a psychologist or therapist is outside of your budget, then the 12-step program with Alcoholic Anonymous may benefit you. 

    - Dr. Mark LaFlamme