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Self-Medicating Depression

picture of Joe Gilmore
Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

February 28, 2021 (Originally Published)

November 16, 2023 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Depression is classified as a mental health mood disorder, and self-medicating depression with alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs is commonplace for people struggling — unfortunately, this only worsens the situation.

A review of scientific literature shows that 23% of people with major depressive disorder reporting that they self-medicate with substances. 

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Studies show that one in six people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives, and the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anger that characterize major depressive disorder can be seriously disrupting. Regardless of the specifics – and these vary from case to case – most interpersonal relationships are impacted, while problems at home, work, and school become more intrusive and less manageable. 

If you fall into the quarter of the population with depression who self-medicate to alleviate symptoms, you’ll not only do nothing to solve the problem, but you’ll likely make matters worse. Luckily, there are depression treatment centers available to help those who are looking stop the problem at the source.

Depression and Self-Medication

Maybe you relax by uncorking a bottle of wine, smoking a joint, or popping a Xanax. If you do this in response to managing the symptoms of a mental health condition like depression, this is known as self-medicating. 

In some cases, you may be aware you have depression, but you’re unable to find healthier and more effective coping strategies. Maybe you can formulate these strategies but you can’t implement them. Either way, it’s not uncommon to reach for your substance of choice as a short-term security blanket. 

Alternatively, you could be experiencing a battery of distressing symptoms without a diagnosis of depression. Unsure what’s going on and seeking solace, you turn to drink or drugs to self-medicate these symptoms. 

Self-Medication and Addiction

The self-medication hypothesis of addictive disorders was formulated in 1985. The hypothesis states that people use substances in response to mental illness, a coping mechanism classified for the first time as self-medication. The hypothesis also suggests that people naturally gravitate towards those substances that soothe their symptoms most efficiently. Whether that’s depression self-medication alcohol, marijuana, or benzos, the use of any substances to self-medicate is inadvisable.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, using substances can even trigger symptoms of mental health disorders. Also, using substances can inflame the symptoms of anxiety.

Not only does self-medication do little to treat the underlying symptoms of depression, it can also negatively impact your mental health. All that can be said for self-medicating with substances is that it might offer some fleeting respite. Relief will be short-lived, though, and over time the symptoms are inflamed rather than soothed. 

Regular and sustained self-medication can lead to substance use disorder, worsening of mood disorders like depression, and an increase in health problems. The issue can also spill over into your relationships at home, work, or school. 

Self-medicating depression with alcohol is one of the most common methods employed.

Self-Medicating with Alcohol

Alcohol is legal, socially acceptable, and readily available. As such, it’s unsurprising that many people suffering from depression reach out for the closest effective legal weapon. 

Unfortunately, alcohol is a CNS depressant. While small quantities of alcohol briefly alleviate the symptoms of both depression and anxiety, when used in larger amounts and long-term, dependence and alcohol use disorder can follow.

The more you self-medicate with alcohol, the more likely you are to become increasingly depressed, even if you get some temporary respite.

Self-Medicating with Marijuana

Self-medicating depression with weed is becoming even more prevalent as the changing US marijuana laws means marijuana is legally and widely available in many states. 

A UNODC trend analysis shows that marijuana is by far the most widely used of all substances by those self-medicating the symptoms of depression. 

Some people who use marijuana claim it can alleviate symptoms of depression, but current scientific research doesn’t yet back up these claims. More studies are required to determine the potential benefits and drawbacks of marijuana when used to treat depression. 

There is some research suggesting that excessive marijuana use can worsen the symptoms of depression

Beyond this, in states where medical or recreational marijuana remains illegal, using the drug exposes you to potential legal ramifications.

Overcoming Self-Medication and Depression at Renaissance

 There are two primary reasons for people self-medicating with substances: 

  1. Using substances can make the symptoms of a mental health condition like depression feel temporarily more manageable, making it an effective if fleeting coping mechanism
  2. People abuse substances for lack of any other coping mechanism for a co-occurring mental health condition

If you have been self-medicating with alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs to the extent that addiction has set in, you would benefit from dual diagnosis treatment. This integrated delivery of treatment helps you to unpack and address both conditions simultaneously. 

For some people experiencing severe substance use disorder and correspondingly severe depression, residential rehab provides the most secure environment for detox and recovery. 

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we offer mental health IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) to provide you with the structure and support of inpatient treatment, but without the cost or the restrictions. 

Whether you engage with our dual diagnosis treatment program, our depression treatment program, or our mental health IOP, the first thing you’ll need to do is stop using substances. If necessary, you can undergo a medical detox, with support and medication on hand as required. 

Our treatment programs use evidence-based medication-assisted treatment if appropriate. FDA-approved medications can be useful for minimizing cravings for substances and minimizing withdrawal symptoms. 

MAT is delivered in combination with counseling (individual and group), psychotherapies like CBT and DBT, and a range of holistic therapies and vocational development programs if required. 

All you need to do is stop self-medicating depression symptoms right away and reach out for assistance from the friendly Renaissance admissions team at 866.330.9449.866.330.9449



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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