Let's Start Talking - Self Medication
28 May 2019
Self-medicating, as we’ve just described, is often perfectly legal. It goes on behind closed doors, in gyms and in front of screens 24/7. The truth is that many more people than we can probably count are self-medicating through seemingly innocuous avenues.
Cynics might decide we’re getting twisted up over nothing here. So let’s dive into what stats and info we do have to get a read on self-medication in the UK: who, what, why and how bad it is.
We’ll start by calling out the traditional means of self-medicating, namely prescription meds. We tend to think the likes of Diazepam, Oxycodone and Xanax are big problems in the US, but we’re not shy on chemical remedies this side of the pond either.
All signs point to an uptick in use of prescription drugs in the UK, although it’s difficult to get a handle on how many people here are abusing their meds. Nonetheless, a 2018 NHS study - based on surveys of more than 20,000 people - suggested that UK adults are the most likely in Europe to abuse their prescription pills.
That NHS figure points at those who abuse meds prescribed by a doctor. But in an age of internet pharmacies and the deep web, it’s not hugely difficult to bypass the traditional means to land some pills.
Here, it’s less easy to track users so we have to follow the money. A 2018 BBC investigation found that black market pills are a £200m business in the UK. Of course, that figure accounts only for pills smuggled out of the country’s official pharmaceutical supply chain. In other words, that’s just the drugs we know about.
This same BBC piece reported that one elicit internet operation sold 15,000 packs of Zopiclone a day, indicating a daily net profit of £505,950.
But when prescription drugs come from the grey or black market, they carry similar risks as street drugs. Namely, 1) they’re illegal. And 2) their quality cannot be verified. In that, we don’t necessarily mean they’re laced with rat poison, but their strength and chemical composition can be a lottery. In 2018 superstrong, elicit Xanax pills caused 200 deaths in the UK, a grim new record.
Staying with traditional means of self-medication, recent figures show that one in ten British adults manage their emotions with daily medicinal drinking. This one in ten figure is double the number who were drinking daily 50 years ago. More than that, the rise in alcohol-use correlates with the multiplication of mental ill-health.
Of the five million Brits who drink every day, 40% say they do so to feel less anxious and 26% as a way to deal with depression. The problem here is that when alcohol numbs the pain, it is mistakenly considered as having curative properties, when in fact all it is doing is delaying our demons.
Those demons - they’re not going anywhere. They’re multiplying in our subconscious and the day will probably come when they can’t be quietened any longer.
Data backing up our recent Let’s Start Talking report suggested that Generation Z is pretty darn stressed. Findings from a 2018 mental health survey reported that young people feel stressed as many as 12 days every month, which is more than any other age bracket. This same report said that Gen Z increasingly turns to social media in a bid to soothe their anxieties.
This might seem innocuous enough, but there are risks attached.
With 13-year-olds checking their online accounts as many as 100 times per day, social media appears to be both the cause of and solution to many of the younger cohorts’ problems. A 2018 study found that teens who spend five hours per day on their phones are almost twice as likely to exhibit depressive symptoms as counterparts who dedicate only one hour to mobile-browsing.
This represents the new day in self-medication. In days gone by there were no such things as Instagram influencers telling us what to wear, how to work out and what to eat. We weren’t constantly comparing ourselves to A-listers with unlimited cash and coaches helping them to sculpt and fabricate unattainable lifestyle images.
A brand new study found that heavy social media users are, on average, 2.7 times more likely to develop depression than light users. So is this self-medication, or is this the reason for self-medication? Apparently, it is both. The problem of obsessive scrolling is so pervasive that various rehab centres throughout the UK now cater for social media addicts via programmes designed to temper reliance on social media and the validation it purports to offer.
The most obvious issue when it comes to self-medicating through food, or emotional eating, centres in junk food. People commonly treat depression or anxiety with junk-food, because it triggers the release dopamine - a chemical that makes us happy.
When the brain associates junk food with happiness then round and round we go.
Comfort eating is nothing new, but the inverse is also rearing its head. On social media, an army of diet and exercise influencers have inspired, if that’s the right word, a new drive towards physical perfection. A look at the numbers and we see this movement comes with a price tag.
The UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, said that calls to its helpline surged from 17,000 in 2017-18 to an estimated 30,000 in 2018-19. Beat also estimates that 1.25 million people within the UK are struggling with eating disorders. That’s more than ever before.
Self-medicating with food (as with most things) can be positive. But too much (or too little) of a good thing can be hugely detrimental when it tips into obsession.
There are close links between body image issues and obsessive exercise. An estimated 39 - 48% of people suffering from eating disorders also suffer from exercise addiction.
First some small-print. Experts still debate on the veracity of exercise addiction - as they do sex addiction - but the fact is that some people take it to extremes. And those people need help.
A survey of more than 6,000 people in Denmark, Hungary, Spain, the UK, and the US - published in the journal Sports Medicine Open - estimates that symptoms of exercise addiction are present in 0.3 to 0.5 percent in the overall population. In the UK, that could mean that as many as 300,000 are affected.
Exercise addicts talk about punishing themselves for not putting in a rigorous enough shift on the treadmill; about withholding food, about missing social or professional appointments; about descending to dangerously low weights. Once again, too much of a good thing …
There’s a reason they call it therapy. Shopping addiction, or oniomania, is said to affect some 15% of us here in the UK. That’s about eight million people.
And as much as the stereotype holds that this is a girls’ problem, that barely stands up nowadays. Gadgets, sportswear, clothes, shoes and accessories - the younger you go, the more the idea of purchasing happiness, self-improvement and reinvention seems to be an equal-opportunities game.
Once again, the digital world means it’s possible to spend across every single waking hour. Compulsive shoppers define their problem behaviour in familiar self medication language. Namely, it is a means of lessening negative emotions, such as worry, anxiety, sadness, loss and loneliness and provides an escape from those feelings, if only for a short time.
But at the risk of repetition, too much of anything - in this case shopping - might start as a remedy … but it winds up being the cause of yet more stress and worry when you factor in debt etc.
As with online shopping, the broadband age has made 24/7 possible in most any activity. There’s no such thing as linear or destination TV any more, not when you can gorge on your favourite shows on-demand and at your own convenience whenever, wherever.
Binging on TV streams - in this case Netflix - is another solid go-to as people vie to fight against their daily stress. But once again, we overshooting.
In 2017, over five million Brits watched a full season of a show in less than 24 hours – up from only 200,000 in 2013. Netflix’s own CEO, Reed Hastings has said the company’s biggest competitor is sleep.
In an article entitled Netflix addiction is real – we are entertaining ourselves to death, Guardian journalist Arwa Mahdawi described a relationship with streaming that feels (un)comfortably familiar.
I watch a lot of Netflix and I am starting to worry that it has become an emotional crutch. If I am feeling stressed or depressed, I self-medicate by staying up late, streaming show after show. Netflix is like audio-visual diazepam. It numbs my senses and makes me forget about everything else; – which is welcome, considering the state of the world. And just when I remember what I should be focusing on ... 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, another episode starts automatically and I tune out again.
Speaking of audio-visual escapism, another method that owes its existence to the net is pornography. Today, 68% of young men and 18% of young women view porn at least once a week, and those numbers are growing.
Psychologists are getting increasingly concerned about the effects of using pornography - whether it’s a tool in self-medication or not - as it can skew a person’s perception of sexual realism, and often leads to feelings of unfulfillment and isolation, especially in young men. Much like fast food, porn causes dopamine flooding, that tricks us into thinking we are happier for it, thus ensuring we will do it again.
The internet has certainly diversified the way we medicate ourselves. Things like porn; scrolling through social media; even shopping, all tie in with unencumbered access to the web. Gone are the days when simple booze and drugs enabled people to zone out from their woes. Now, in the current culture of excess, where moderation is a thing of the past and we have wholesale, instant access to whatever we need to cure our ills; we can do this with just about anything.
And herein lies the danger of self-medication: Do it irresponsibly and you may end up covering up the symptoms of one stressor with another, compounding your misery and causing a spiral. And whilst alcohol is most commonly associated with starting this spiral, it is by no means alone.
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