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Many people with drug addictions are self-medicating a mental illness

Many people with drug addictions are self-medicating a mental illness

A now-guidance counselor recalls that he was abused physically and sexually as a child. According to Milwaukee 58 News, the man dropped out of high school and was in and out of jail as a juvenile, facing various charges including drug possession. Diagnosed with depression, the teenager began self-medicating with cocaine, marijuana and other illegal narcotics. During one of his prison stays, he decided to make a change.

Fortunately for that man, life did turn around, as he had the resources to earn his diploma and get help from a mental health professional. However, this is not always the case for inmates here in Minnesota and across the country.

Why self-medicate?

There are three basic forms of addiction: disease, choice and self-medication. The cause of a self-medicated addiction is typically trauma. People turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to escape their own emotions or pain. The Adverse Childhood Experience Study demonstrates the link between trauma and addiction, noting that people may be more prone to abuse drugs or alcohol if they have experienced events such as the following:

  • A medical emergency
  • Neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Loss

In other instances, people use alcohol or illegal drugs to deal with extreme anxiety caused by a chemical imbalance, panic attacks, social anxiety and even more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Some resort to street drugs because they lack the health coverage to pay for their expensive medications while others may simply have stopped taking their medications, leaving them unable to resist the easy availability of illegal substances.

A growing problem

The National Institute of Corrections reports that more than 1.2 million mentally ill adults were incarcerated in 2006 among federal, state and local jails. When compared with the general population, there are as many as four times more people with mental health issues who are on probation or parole after conviction for criminal charge such as drug possession.

Even more frightening, prison systems are less capable of caring for these inmates. The problem can be traced to the 1970s, when psychiatric hospitals closed without plans in place to help treat the people who were released. Today, jails across the country are struggling to keep up with the general inmate population, much less those with mental illness. The Associated Press reports several examples, such as federal officials blaming conditions at one California prison for 15 suicides in less than three years. In Florida, inmates who asked for help from a mental health professional were never seen. Those who refused medication were deemed to be well and scratched off the list of people with mental illness.

People who are facing drug charges should seek the help of a criminal defense attorney. In many cases, people are better served going to a mandated treatment program instead of prison.

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