Addicted to medication: a psychologist shares the warning signs and when to get help

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No one should feel ashamed about seeking help for any kind of substance use disorder.
No one should feel ashamed about seeking help for any kind of substance use disorder.
Getty Images/AzmanJaka
  • Just because medications come from a doctor or pharmacist does not mean you can’t become addicted. 
  • Medication, such as codeine, found in painkillers and cough syrup, can be as harmful as illegal drugs.
  • A psychologist shares the warning signs you may have an addiction to your meds and what to do to get help.

An addiction to medicines may go unnoticed by close family, colleagues, and friends. But these ‘legal drugs’ can do more harm than good if they become a source of dependence.

When medicines are overused, anyone, young or old, can slip unwittingly into drug abuse. 

“Addiction to medication, such as codeine, which is found in over-the-counter painkillers and cough syrup, sleeping pills or prescription tranquilisers can be as harmful as addiction to illegal drugs,” says clinical psychologist Janine Deiner, who practises at Akeso Alberton. 

“However, many people affected do not recognise they are developing a problem until they are in the grip of a substance use disorder.” 

READ MORE | 'The drugs have messed up my life' - recovering addicts

Whether you’re using substances such as these to self-medicate for physical pain or on the advice of a healthcare professional, it is common to develop a tolerance for the medication, says Deiner.

In other words, you will need to take more and more to experience the same effect, and, in time, you may come to a point where you cannot function normally without taking the medication. 

“In addition, people suffering from stress, anxiety or symptoms of depression may try to ‘self-medicate’ to numb emotional pain. In the short term, this may help to mask the symptoms of a mental health condition, but, ultimately, it fuels addiction and makes the condition worse,” says Deiner.

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Don’t delay seeking help

People often delay seeking help and treatment because they have difficulty recognising that their habit has become a potentially devastating addiction, says Deiner. This is especially true because medicines are perceived as more socially acceptable than illegal drugs. 

She suggests seeking help if you notice any of the following:

  • Feeling anxious or stressed about not being able to access the medicine, which is not otherwise medically needed.
  • Craving the medicine, feeling like you ‘need’ to take it, or don’t enjoy being without it.
  • Visiting multiple doctors to get prescriptions and different pharmacies to fill prescriptions or to buy enough over-the-counter medicine to get you through your daily functioning.
  • A preoccupation with the medicine, particularly if it consumes a considerable amount of your time and energy or requires time to recover from its effects.
  • Justifying why you ‘need’ the addictive substance, for example, “It’s been a stressful day. I need some pills to unwind.”
  • You may have tried to cut down or control the use of the medicine before but cannot stop completely.
  • If you can’t access the medicine, you can’t get through the day or sleep at night.
  • It has started negatively affecting your work performance and social or family relationships, but you can’t stop taking it.

READ MORE | Longer treatment more effective for substance addiction

“People who have a dependency or addictive disorder may begin to display changes in their behaviour, neglect their responsibilities and may be unable to function in their daily lives,” says Deiner.

Those closest to the person may notice that the individual:

  • May often be tired or drowsy.
  • Sleeps more than usual.
  • Withdraws socially.
  • May seem irritable or twitchy.
  • Suffers stomach problems.
  • Takes frequent trips to the pharmacy or displays secretive behaviour.
  • Has an excessive amount of medicine or empty medicine packages.

Reach out - help is available

No one should feel ashamed about seeking help for any kind of substance use disorder, says Sandy Lewis, Netcare’s mental wellness and compassion coach.

She adds:

Addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. If you are having difficulty getting through a few days or a week without taking medicine, approach your pharmacist and have an honest and confidential discussion about your dependence on the medicine.

“Pharmacists are highly accessible healthcare professionals with the knowledge and skills to advise and provide referrals to help you get the better of potentially problematic use of medicines or any concerns or questions you may have about using medicines appropriately,” adds Lewis.

At risk of fatal overdose

Deiner says that developing a tolerance for medicines with habitual use puts you at risk of potentially fatal overdose or leading to addiction to other types of drugs.

“Addiction frequently manifests together with other psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. The professional healthcare teams at dual diagnosis units at Netcare Akeso mental health facilities provide integrated treatment programmes, which take into account that such conditions are often strongly interrelated,” she says. 

READ MORE | 7 highly addictive prescription medications

Irrespective of which came first, Deiner explains that addiction and other mental health problems both contribute to a destructive cycle. However, a holistic multidisciplinary treatment approach, which addresses addiction and other mental health problems in tandem, offers better patient outcomes.

Netcare Akeso Alberton runs a 21-day inpatient programme involving psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, an addictions counsellor, a general practitioner, and a social worker who work closely with the individual to provide comprehensive treatment to help them regain control of their lives.

For information about mental health and services and accessing care, or for help in an emotional crisis, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, you can phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor. 


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