By Kayt Sukel
Since 1949, Mental Health America (MHA) has designated May as Mental Health Month, a 31-day period of awareness and advocacy regarding mental health and wellbeing.This year’s theme for the month’s awareness campaign is Risky Business—a nod to MHA’s 2017 conference theme, “Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll.”
As the term Risky Business may denote, this year’s awareness campaign is all about helping to educate the public on specific risk factors that may indicate the presence of an underlying mental illness. These are the kind of behaviors that may exacerbate an underlying issue—or even increase the risk of developing a mental health problem later in life. One major risk factor is prescription drug misuse.
We’ve all heard about the opiate and opioid epidemic that is currently sweeping the U.S. A recent study made headlines when it estimated 1 in 5 patients who are prescribed an opioid medication like OxyContin or Percocet will become a long-term user of the drug. So, what constitutes misuse, exactly?
MHA defines misuse as when a person “uses a prescription drug that is not intended for them, or uses a prescription in a way that is different than how the doctor indicated.” That could mean using the drugs for a different medical issue or in larger amounts or a longer period of time than the doctor indicated. The MHA reports that 12.5 million Americans misused opioid painkillers last year—another 6.1 million misused tranquilizers. Still other millions misused prescription stimulants and sedatives. And such misuse is significantly higher among individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illness.
Jon Belford, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York City, says many people with preexisting anxiety or depression may start to abuse prescription drugs in attempts to numb difficult and painful emotions. The problem, however? It can lead to a vicious cycle: You take the drugs to deal with negative feelings and situations. But becoming dependant on the drugs results in more negative feelings and situations—and can ultimately lead to drug addiction.
“Use of these substances can come at the expense of learning more adaptive skills to regulate emotions without the help of pharmaceuticals, and, as such, frequency of use and tolerance levels for the drugs increase,” he explains. “As physical and psychological dependency develops, it becomes difficult to break this cycle.”
Most people know when they’ve been misusing prescription pharmaceuticals, and may try to rationalize this behavior. They are using a prescription that was not written for them or not following the doctor’s orders regarding use of the drug. But they may try to rationalize this behavior. They should seek help instead.
If you think you may be misusing prescription drugs, take the free online MHA substance use screen. You can use those results to start a conversation with your primary care physician or a qualified mental health professional, and find the right path forward to deal with your medical condition or any mental health issues.
To learn more about Risky Business and prescription drug misuse, visit the MHA website where you can download information sheets specifically about prescription drug misuse and what you can do about it.