It Doesn’t End Here: Problems Arising from Unchecked Mental Health Issues

Mridu Walia - Mechanical
Posted on: March 27, 2019

Hello, faithful readers of the Iron Warrior. Hakuna Matata! Welcome to our last issue for this term. Today we will be talking about some problems that can arise if mental health issues go unchecked. The reason I chose to discuss this topic and not a mental health issue, in particular, is because these problems are unavoidable if a mental health issue of any kind is present and is allowed to grow. Therefore, I felt it was important to discuss this and so, to give you an overview: we will talk about the different problems that can result from unchecked mental health issues, some common indicators, consequences of these problems and some support and resources. This might be a heavy read but hopefully a helpful one. Read on!
So, your intuition was correct: the problems that can commonly stem if mental health issues go unchecked (that we will be discussing) are mostly related to the abuse of psychoactive (mind-altering) substances ex. addiction to alcohol and smoking; substance abuse of prescription drugs i.e. opioid pain-relievers like Vicodin, marijuana or stimulants such as Adderall; and use of illegal drugs (cocaine, methamphetamines etc.). StartYourRecovery, a website that provides helpful information for people who are dealing with substance abuse and addictions, listed some common indicators including memory loss, dilated pupils, strange/unpredictable behavior, loss of interest in daily activities, relationship problems, as well as loss of sleep and appetite. The consequences of these problems are much more severe and complicated. But what is considered as substance abuse when it comes to prescription drugs or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines? WedMD states the following for abuse of medicine: taking medicine prescribed for someone else; taking extra doses or consuming a drug other than the way it is supposed to be consumed or taking the drug for non-medical reasons. But it is not limited to just misuse of prescribed drugs. Even the consumption of legal drugs in a manner that is excessive is wrong for example, alcohol consumption. In an article titled “The Facts on Teen Drinking” published by the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo, it summarizes why people, especially teenagers are prone to drinking: (1) Escape: They see it as a means to escape their problems for example problems with friends and family, problems at school/university, and mental health issues. (2) Risk-taking: Doing something that is forbidden naturally gives you a certain level of rush which explains why a lot of teenagers drink just because they seek the rush that they get from doing something they are not supposed to be doing. (3) Misperception: People are of the opinion that everyone their age is drinking, and consuming liquor more heavily than they really are. Research shows that 50% of all 15-year old students consume liquor, implying that the remaining 50% do not consume it. (4) Curiosity: People start drinking to simply gain firsthand experience and knowledge of what it feels like to drink. (5) Peer pressure: teenagers see their friends drinking and conform to peer pressure to fit in and start drinking. (6) Feeling grown up: Growing up, teenagers often see adults, even parents, drinking and they feel copying their behaviour makes them “grown-up” or mature, because in their minds they are thinking “that is what grown-ups do”.
Allow me to clear out any misunderstandings that might have sprouted in your mind. Drinking is not that unhealthy if it is under control. But there is a difference between drinking socially and drinking to cope. Unfortunately, alcohol is the most common way people try to cope with their problems. From personal experience, I can admit I have used alcohol in the past to deal with social anxiety. I started relying on liquor during night outs to help me cope with my anxiety issues. It took a while, some nasty hangovers, and family interventions before I realized what the problem was. It wasn’t wrong of me to consume alcohol when I would go on a night out, however, I was consuming it for the wrong reasons i.e. to deal with a long-term problem. According to WedMD, if you’re a woman consuming more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week and if you’re a man consuming more than four drinks a day or fourteen drinks a week, you would fall under the category of “heavy drinker”. Binge drinking can result in bad hangovers, blackouts and sometimes more serious consequences such as alcohol poisoning. Prolonged abuse of alcohol can cause serious and (potentially fatal) health-related issues such as liver disease, neurological problems, high blood pressure, anemia and more. To quote HereToHelp, the rule of thumb is to “consume not too much, or too often and always in safe contexts”.
Let’s talk about the difference between addiction and substance abuse because the two terms are very different, however, people use them interchangeably. American Addiction Centers explains “Drug abuse refers to using drugs even though it has become a problem in your life. You may have begun using drugs without any noticeable negative consequences, but as you continued to abuse drugs, the negative consequences became more apparent” whereas the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviours.”  However, since it can seem so casual, it can easily turn into an addiction where the body develops a physical dependency on the effects and depending on what substance is used and how long, withdrawal from in it causes extreme physical symptoms ranging from vomiting, nausea, sweating, abdominal pain to more severe symptoms such as hallucinations and seizures. HereToHelp explains “It’s helpful to think of substance use along with a continuum, from beneficial use to harmful use. Along the middle of the continuum, substance use may be both beneficial and harmful. At the far end of the continuum, some people develop dependence—they need to continually use the drug in order to feel normal and will keep using even when that leads to financial difficulties, problems at home or at work, health problems, or legal problems”. Ashwood Recovery, in one of their blog posts, talk about the four major differences between substance abuse and addiction. We already discussed the first two i.e. how substance abuse can seem a casual experience (ex. taking pain medication to get high), but then can quickly progress into an addiction. We also discussed how recovering from an addiction is accompanied by withdrawal symptoms. However, the most interesting point they made is by discussing how “Addiction is a mental disorder whereas substance abuse can be a choice”. As we established before, substance abuse is primarily defined by how the substance is being used whereas substance addiction is primarily defined by the physiological and psychological effects of the substance abuse on a person. They establish how the former is a behaviour and the latter is a mental disorder by stating some relevant components of addiction stated by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: The desire, but inability, to cut down or control substance use; Having a strong urge to use the substance (i.e. a craving); building up a tolerance for the effects of the substance. All in all, it is an individual’s choice to engage in substance abuse before it turns into a substance abuse disorder aka addiction whereby the person is unable to control their use of the abused substance. The last point they talk about is how substance abuse alters the brain briefly as compared to substance addiction, which alters the brain permanently. To quote NIDA, “For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be described as the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. This is why a person who abuses drugs eventually feels flat, lifeless, and depressed, and is unable to enjoy things that were previously pleasurable. Now, the person needs to keep taking drugs again and again just to try and bring his or her dopamine function back up to normal – which only makes the problem worse, like a vicious cycle”. The main takeaway being, one should not dismiss the possibility of developing an addiction just because they recognize the symptoms of substance-abuse rather than full-blown addiction.
Moving on to some resources and support, I personally found the readings posted on the Ashwood Recovery blog extremely informative, interesting and helpful. StartYourRecovery was another webpage that provided a lot of helpful information on substance abuse depending on the substance as well as who you recognize as i.e. teen, veteran, parent etc. If you can relate to this article in any way and recognize you might be struggling with an addiction or substance abuse, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help. If you have recognized you have a problem, amazing! You have already taken the first step on your road to recovery. The next step would be to research what kind of help you can get and the resources around you. For instance, a person struggling with alcoholism can join an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group and enter a 12-step program. It is essentially an anonymous group of members belonging to different communities, a safe space, where they can share their honest accounts of setbacks as well as success stories to inspire and motivate each other. The 12-step program is essentially a set of 12 principles that guide former alcoholics on how to tackle the problems caused by their addiction, how to make amends, and how to continue in their new lives as recovering drinkers. If a person is struggling with a nicotine addiction, setting up an appointment with a physician would be a good place to start to figure out if you would benefit from nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gums, patches, sprays, inhalers etc. to help you overcome the physical withdrawal symptoms while reducing the nicotine tolerance and allow you to focus on the psychological aspects of quitting smoking. Smoke Free is an IOS-based application that the user can download on their phone and is a great way to keep track of your progress i.e. cravings, health improvement, time spent smoke-free, money saved etc. There is a mission to be completed every day for a month to help the user resist cravings and motivate them to stay smoke-free. The idea is if you can complete the missions and abstain from smoking for a month, there is a good chance you can stay smoke-free for good. You can also keep track of your triggers and it provides a lot of helpful readings on how to manage cravings. I hope this article was helpful for you or anyone you know who might be struggling with a problem. Take care of your mental health and be aware of what other problems might take roots if you do not seek help at the right time!

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