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No easy answers — the dangers of self-medication

Self-medication can seem like a shortcut, but it has risks. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Self-medication can seem like a shortcut, but it has risks. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

By RACHEL BRODERICK
Staff Writer

When you think about self-medicating you normally jump right to alcohol or drugs, because they are the ones that are talked about the most.

You don’t generally think that someone can self-medicate with caffeine or food. But there are many different forms of self-medicating and all of them are serious and can have a significant impact on a person.

In the same way, there are a numerous reasons why someone would want to self-medicate. Among the leading causes are depression and anxiety. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issue among college students according to a study done at Penn State in 2014. Both can be treated with prescription drugs and counselling. Some people, however choose to “treat” themselves with alcohol. Alcohol in small amounts isn’t that harmful and can relieve some symptoms, but when consumed in large amounts and use often can worsen the symptoms of depression and potentially lead to alcoholism.

Drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana are used to self-medicate. Each comes with risks.

Cocaine can cause heart failure and even death. Using this substance 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.

Heroin worsens depression symptoms and also can lead to death. The World Drug Report estimates that up to 32.4 million people worldwide use opiates and opioids annually. When depression and opiate use or abuse are combined, the results can be deadly.

Marijuana does not have a high number of related deaths. While it has been found effective in treating depression in small doses, too much marijuana can worsen symptoms.

Then there is the lesser talked about ways of self-medicating, such as overeating. 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” according to PositivelyPositive. Comfort eating can reduce stress for a time but if you continue to eat it can affect your body and self-esteem.

You may not think you can self-medicate with caffeine but it’s possible.

“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,” according to Healthline.com

Kendra Nemeth, team lead and case manager for the Safe Bed program at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says the most common form of self-medicating among college and university age students is alcohol.

“This is because it is easily accessible and socially acceptable to over consume alcohol at this age. Marijuana and prescription medications are also frequently seen, but I would say alcohol (is the) most common,” she says.

Nemeth says there are a number of factors which lead an individual to self-medicate rather than seek medical attention.

“(It’s) mostly because it is socially accepted and easily accessible. A large part is also as lack of knowledge,” Nemeth explains.

“When an individual is experiencing mental health symptoms, they commonly cope with substances (such as alcohol) to cover those symptoms. For example, people may consume alcohol to mask the anxiety they experience at a party, or someone may use marijuana to lessen the voices they experience. Stigma is always a concern as well as price of medications for students.”

Nementh says she agrees with the Penn State study ranking depression and anxiety at the top of health issues among students.

“This does not surprise me at all because university and college presents new concerns,” such as money problems, isolation from friends and family, less time for self-care, harder classes compared to high school and less individualized support.

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