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The self medication theory of addiction

The self-medication theory of addiction is based on the idea that people use substances, such as alcohol and drugs, or the effects of other addictive behaviours, such as sex, eating or gambling, to compensate for underlying problems that have not been properly treated.  This theory usually refers to substance abuse disorders, but it can also be applied to non-substance or behavioural addictions.

Responses to the Self-Medication Theory

The self-medication theory is increasingly popular among people with addictions and professionals who treat them. While some who take a hard line on addictions believe the self-medication theory is an excuse for irresponsible behaviour, many in the medical profession find it useful to transition people from substances and behaviours that they are addicted to and are causing the problems, to more controllable prescription medications that address the underlying problem directly.

Depression, for example, can often be successfully treated with antidepressant medication, freeing the individual from seeking emotional comfort in their addiction. ​​

The theory is compassionate to people with addictions, particularly illicit drug users. It presents them not as weak-willed, but as creative problem-solvers, who are attempting to fill the gap left by limited medical options.

The self-medication theory is also helpful to the therapeutic process, as it provides a clear path out of addiction that unites professionals with people struggling with addictions. They have a shared goal of correctly treating the underlying problem, and can work together to achieve this.

However, some argue that the theory may absolve illicit drug users of some of the responsibility for their problems. Another stance taken against the self-medication theory is that by arguing that people with addictions are self-medicating, the theory legitimises drug use, and medication generally, as a way of solving emotional problems. Many people who have been through the process of becoming abstinent feel that any drug use, including medications, allows people to avoid dealing with psychological issues and reinforces denial.

Together with this, the self-medication theory reinforces the chronic disease model of addiction. It runs the risk of simplifying the complex issue of addiction, which involves many psychological and social factors, to pure physiology.

The Future of the Self-Medication Theory

More and more people are going public with their addictions. Addiction and its treatment are no longer swept under the carpet, and these issues have even become the subject of reality shows.  Many celebrities and even politicians have admitted to past drug use.

With greater social change and openness about drug use and addictions, society is becoming more compassionate towards those with addictions.

The drug legalisation movement and the medical cannabis movement, both of which have become increasingly mainstream, support the self-medication theory. The theory will likely play an important role in current and future concepts of addiction.

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