Though self-treatment is an accepted part of managing minor illnesses and injuries, it is not recommended for most serious health conditions. This includes serious psychiatric illnesses such as substance use disorder (SUD).1,2,3,4
The risks of relying on self-treatment for SUD are similar to those of other serious illnesses. Issues specific to SUD may also cause additional complications that could further harm the affected individual.2,4,5
Risks associated with self-treatment for SUD include the following:
People with mental health issues will generally not have an objective view of their current state. This is especially true for people with SUD, as drugs, alcohol, and withdrawals can affect mood and perception, often resulting in an inaccurate assessment.4,5,6 Additionally, the lack of experience treating mental health issues can cause the affected individual to miss or misinterpret what they see.2,3,4
While knowing that you’re hooked on something is relatively straightforward, understanding the wider context in which that happens can be challenging, even for qualified mental health professionals. SUD commonly co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and trauma and these may be contributing factors to the SUD as well.1 Failure to treat these co-occurring conditions properly will tend to present poor long-term recovery outcomes.1,2,3,4
The safe management of withdrawal symptoms in a supervised clinical setting is important not only to keep the individual safe but also to improve the odds of long-term recovery.
Improper withdrawal management from substances such as opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol can be extremely uncomfortable and potentially lethal, particularly when quitting “cold turkey”.1
In cases where withdrawals have to be closely managed, dose tapering or drug replacement therapy under supervised conditions is often necessary to stabilize the individual and allow them to receive other interventions such as psychotherapy.1
Because of the lack of quality control in illicit drugs, proper dose tapering and drug replacement can be very difficult outside the context of a proper facility, leaving self-treating individuals vulnerable to unintended overdoses and other complications.1,3,4,5
Individuals who self-treat for SUD often do so in the very same environments where their SUD initially developed. If they have other mental health conditions that contribute to the SUD, this could result in a higher risk of relapse.1
By contrast, being treated by qualified clinicians in a proper facility effectively removes affected individuals from these environments while simultaneously giving them a means of better avoiding relapses through therapy and other interventions.1,4,5,6
Individuals who self-treat are usually not experienced medical professionals themselves. This means they often lack the experience needed to bring about a safe, sustainable recovery.
This lack of specific knowledge may cause them to use ineffective treatments, fail to include important interventions, or use options that could harm them and impede their progress. Ultimately, this may mean that they will take much longer to recover, if they even recover at all.1,2,4,5,6
Because of all the above reasons, self-treatment tends to result in worse outcomes compared to specialized programs. Self-treatment, even when done well, tends to be less holistic, resulting in gaps in care that lead to poor results.1,4,5,6
For instance, self-treatment for SUD tends to focus on detoxification and treating withdrawal symptoms and less on behavior modification and addressing underlying mental health issues.4,6 For the best chance at long-term recovery, affected individuals need to be able to go through the entire continuum of care.1,2,4,5,6
Thankfully, Boston is home to some of the best SUD treatment programs in the country. If you’re in the New England region and need help finding SUD treatment programs in Boston that address all phases and aspects of recovery, Boston Drug Treatment Centers is ready to help. Call us at (617) 517-6448 to discuss your treatment options.