Depression is classified as a mood disorder. It’s associated with feelings of sadness, loss, and anger. When someone is depressed, these symptoms can impact their everyday life. Treating depression is important. It 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 it can cause even bigger problems than simply choosing not to get treatment from trained medical professionals.
The idea that substance abuse can be a form of self-medication is formally known as the self-medication hypothesis and was introduced in 1985.
The hypothesis claims that people use substances as a response to mental illness. It states that alcohol and drug abuse is often a coping mechanism for people with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression.
It also suggests that people gravitate toward the substance that alleviates their symptoms most effectively.
However, 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 worsen anxiety symptoms.
Self-medication can have a negative impact on mental health and does very little to treat the underlying condition. Recognizing forms of self-medication can help you understand how substance abuse may be related to depression and other mental health conditions.
Risks: Decreased self-esteem, worsened depression symptoms
If you’re an emotional eater, you might self-medicate with food. “Emotional eating” is using food as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions. This practice is also called “bingeing” or “comfort eating.”
Emotional eating may temporarily reduce stress in those who aren’t clinically depressed, according to a 2015 study. However, bingeing is not a healthy way to treat depression. It can negatively affect self-esteem and make symptoms of mental illness worse. It may also have an impact on physical health through weight gain.
Forms: Beer, wine, liquor
Risks: Addiction, legal consequences
In low doses, alcohol can temporarily relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. It can make a person more jovial and social, give them a sense of everything being “alright,” and alleviate anxiety.
However, when used regularly, it can lead to alcoholism, which worsens depression and anxiety. Alcoholism may require a lengthy recovery process and can be extremely difficult to manage. Recovery can be a life-long process.
Forms: Cocaine, amphetamines
Risks: Heart failure, death, legal consequences
People with mental health conditions may abuse psychostimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. This is most likely due to the feelings of euphoria these drugs can cause. However, cocaine can be addictive and cause depression.
Cocaine has a high potential for addiction. It can be fatal when used as a recreational drug. It does major damage to the body’s cardiovascular system. Cocaine-related deaths can 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 “crash” feeling after the drugs have worn off doesn’t make them an effective solution for depression. In fact, cocaine users often find that it worsens their symptoms.
Forms: Coffee, tea, energy drinks
Risks: Increased feelings of depression and anxiety
Caffeine is a stimulant that’s found in many foods and in drinks 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, causing feelings of confusion and depression.
Caffeine can also heighten feelings of anxiety. Cut down to one cup of coffee or tea per day if you’re sensitive to the effects of caffeine.
Risks: Worsened symptoms of depression, legal consequences
Compared to illicit substances (such as opioids, cocaine, and amphetamines), marijuana, or cannabis is, by far, the most widely used substance among those with depression.
While there are some assertions among cannabis users that cannabis treats depression, more studies are needed to determine the benefits and possible disadvantages of marijuana as a potential treatment for depression.
Studies have shown that too much marijuana can worsen symptoms of depression.
Forms: Codeine, heroin, methadone
Risks: Worsened depression symptoms, death, legal consequences
Opiates, such as codeine and morphine, are drugs derived from the poppy plant. Any drug that mimics the effects of an opiate is called an opioid. Opioids include heroin, oxycodone, and methadone.
The World Drug Report estimated that in 2013, 40.9 to 58 million people worldwide used opiates and opioids.
Depression is common among users of these drugs. When depression and opiate use or abuse are combined, the results can be deadly.
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
If you think you are self-medicating, your first course of action would be to see your doctor. Explain to him or her what has been going on in your life lately and your patterns of alcohol use. Be honest — your doctor needs accurate information in order to help you. Your doctor may refer you to a psychologist or other counselor if it is concluded that you have an alcohol use disorder.Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPHAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.