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Is It Recreation or Self Medication?

Addiction and substance abuse have been some of the most widespread and stigmatizing issues for decades. There is a preconceived notion about people who partake in drug use, and more specifically abuse them. It is seen by many as simply an indication of glutton or weakness. The reality, however, is that many people suffering from mental illness or adversity who aren’t able to receive adequate care turn to substance abuse as a method of coping. A reliance on substances to numb internal or external pain, known as self-medicating, can start as early as an individual’s preteen years. For this reason, it is important to understand the reasons behind self-medicating and preventative measures that can be taken to support our youth in need.  

With the help of supporters, Youth Transforming Justice can facilitate regular Drug and Alcohol Substance Safety Skills Harm Reduction programs as part of our teen education and prevention efforts. These 12-hour programs are included in every restorative plan that is given by YTJ Peer Solutions. It is not only a requirement of the youth respondent, but also of one of their parents or guardians. This helps spark productive conversations about drug use that can result in a better understanding by both parties about the dangers of substance abuse.

Harm Reduction is only one of the many ways Youth Transforming Justice helps both adults and youth identify self-medicating at an early stage. Discovering when someone is showing signs of self-medication early can make a large difference to that person’s successful recovery. We urge you to learn the early signs and educate others if you think you might be at risk or you are looking to support a friend. 

Self-medicating can present itself in a multitude of ways. Alcohol has been the most commonly abused substance for self-medicating for an extended period. As marijuana was legalized and e-cigarette companies began marketing toward a younger demographic, the abuse of these substances in teens has increased exponentially. Teens facing adversity or untreated mental health disorders may turn to these substances as an outlet for coping when they don’t have accessible alternatives. Teens who engage in substance abuse are three times more likely to have experienced a traumatic event than the average. And while these drugs may temporarily alleviate symptoms or stresses, they can worsen them in the long term. In our Harm Reduction program, we work to help young people struggling with self-medication find alternative activities they enjoy and find alleviating stress. It is important to present young people with plausible alternatives to self-medication to help with their struggles that do not pose the risk of addiction. 

Addiction is a risk with any use of a substance, and abuse of it by someone with pre-existing mental health issues makes that risk even higher. Over time, one can develop a dependency on the substance as their unresolved hardships continue to worsen. Self-medicating does not only impose the risk of further emphasizing mental health problems. Many studies have indicated a link between substance abuse in adolescent years and a predisposition to developing disorders in the future. Understanding and identifying risks and impacts of addiction is important for parents but also young people to take away from their experience in our program.

Recognizing if an individual is self-medicating can be difficult. Especially when someone remains undiagnosed for their mental health disorder or does not mention the extent to which their circumstances are impacting them, it can be difficult to distinguish recreational from self-medicating. Some ways to decipher the two are if someone is turning to substance in stressful situations or when their mental health is at its worst. If their tolerance rapidly builds, that is an indication of regular heavy use in an attempt to relieve stress. One of the most severe indications of self-medicating and potential addiction is if the individual becomes anxious or panicked when they are in environments without access to substances. It is also important to note that recreational and self-medicating are not mutually exclusive, nor do either have universal signals in every person. Once someone begins self-medicating, the journey to stop can be strenuous with the need for professional treatment. Therapy and peer support groups can be effective resources for youth struggling with self-medicating. Also finding alternative methods of coping with symptoms such as exercise, journaling, or talking to a trusted adult also essential for recovery. 

It is also important to remember that recreating can have tragic repercussions as well. Nationally, as well as right here in Marin County, fentanyl, a drug many times stronger than heroin, has been circulating widely.  Usually found in street versions of pills like Percocet and Xanax, small amounts of fentanyl can have deadly results even for teens with no serious drug problems.  In addition, the marijuana available to teens today through leaf and concentrated forms often accessed through vaping, is hundreds of times stronger than the marijuana used in earlier decades. Often seen as a harmless drug, in leaf form, it is common now to see strains with over 25% THC, and in concentrated forms, it can reach 98% THC.  This compares to leaf marijuana in the 1970s with a THC level of under 5%.  Marijuana in this form can be addictive and in rare cases has been known to induce psychotic episodes in teens.

If you are interested in learning more about Youth Transforming Justice and our peer-led programs that help identify and prevent teen substance issues, join us and observe a Peer Solutions case and discover more through our website: If you are interested in more information on our Substance Safety Skills training contact Don Carney at 415-686-1356,

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