Teens trying to mask or suppress pain caused by trauma, loneliness, social stress, insecurity, and anxiety can turn to a behavior whose negative consequences include addiction and even death: self-medicating with alcohol.
Learn about using alcohol to self-medicate and how you can help your teen overcome this dangerous behavior.
What Is Self-Medication?
It’s not hard to understand how self-medication with alcohol occurs. One drink takes the edge off the pain and creates enough relief to pour a second drink. Self-medicating is a vicious cycle that temporarily relieves pain but causes more real-world problems, such as relationship issues, academic struggles, and physical ailments and dependencies.
Why Teens Self-Medicate
Despite the risks of and campaigns against drunk driving, messaging promoting responsible drinking, and media portrayals of the negative side of too much drinking, teens continue to self-medicate with alcohol. Why?
Sometimes it’s because other people do it, and the social pressure to conform is immense. Your teen may have friends who’ll indulge with them, making it seem like the most obvious choice even when it’s not the healthiest one. Some teens even learn it from their parents. It can also be as simple as this: Alcohol is used as a form of self-medication to manage or escape difficult emotions.
When your teen is emotionally hurt, whether it be from trauma or loss, abuse, or mental illness, the pain is difficult to live with. Alcohol feels like it might deflect the hurt for a while, even though your teen most likely realizes it won’t solve their problems.
In addition, self-medicating can be seen as a more accessible way to cope with pain or trauma than seeking mental health treatment. This can be due to factors including the stigma of mental illness and a lack of education about mental health.
Dangers of Self-Medicating
Self-medicating with alcohol is dangerous. Consider taking any type of substance, even over-the-counter medication like cough syrup or ibuprofen. With many of those medications, it’s strongly advised to not consume more than the recommended dosage per day or to take them for an extended number of days without consulting a doctor.
It’s also important to remember that for anyone under the age of 21, any alcohol consumed exceeds the daily recommended intake.
Self-medication with alcohol can create a range of dangerous health and safety issues. If your teen drinks too much, they may drive drunk and get into a serious accident. They could also end up with alcohol poisoning, which the Mayo Clinic notes can affect a person’s breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and gag reflex, as well as lead to a coma or death.
Addiction is another one of the dangers of self-medicating. Signs include:
- Acting aggressive, angry, or despondent.
- Breaking rules.
- Dropping old friends for new ones.
- Physical changes like watery eyes, shakes, and tremors.
- Loss of interest in favorite activities.
- Sleeping more than usual.
Self-Medication and Mental Health
Self-medication can be a serious issue if your teen has been diagnosed with a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. Formerly called a dual diagnosis, when someone has alcohol use and mental health issues, it’s referred to as a co-occurring disorder. In common terms, it’s called taking a bad situation and making it worse. It doesn’t matter which condition comes first, the drinking or the mental illness. Drinking affects mental illness just as negatively as mental illness affects alcohol abuse.
Like pouring oil on a fire, using alcohol to cope with a mental health issue is extremely serious. Drinking heavily can disrupt the neurological functioning of the brain. This makes it more complicated to treat and recover from mental health and alcohol use struggles and often can create more emotional pain and stress for your teen.
How To Help Your Teen Stop Self-Medicating
If you suspect your teen is self-medicating, have a conversation so you can understand what’s going on with them and what’s driving the behavior. If you’re concerned they might need substance abuse rehab, contact their physician or a therapist to discuss the situation and determine next steps. For example, your teen may need an intensive outpatient program that meets multiple times a week; a partial hospitalization program where they get treatment at a facility on weekdays while still living at home; or a residential treatment center where they live at the center while receiving 24/7 care until they’re better.
If alcohol addiction is an issue, self-management and recovery training (SMART) can be used to treat it, which can also help your teen stop self-medicating. SMART combines dialectical behavior therapy, which changes negative thought patterns to positive ones, with emotional coping strategies and group and family support. This approach can help your teen control their addictive behaviors.
You can find a therapist or treatment center near you by using the Psychology Today search tool. You can also use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s treatment facility search tool.
It’s also a good idea to take steps that will help your teen make smarter decisions about alcohol in the future. One great way to lay the groundwork for better choices is to spend quality time together. Your teen is more likely to respect what you have to say to them — including about the dangers of self-medicating with alcohol — when they know that you value them.
Putting It All Together
It’s never easy when a loved one turns to substance use as a coping mechanism. By learning more about self-medicating with alcohol, talking with your teen, and seeking professional assistance when needed, you can help your teen heal from self-medication.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!