Self-Medicating with Over-The-Counter Medicines for Mental Illness

Psychiatry and Psychology CategorySelf-diagnosis, -treatment, and -monitoring is widespread due to the expansion of healthcare and the surplus of medical information available via television, radio, magazines, and the internet. While relying on introspection to develop awareness of your body and emotions is an important skill, self-treatment with over-the-counter (OTC) remedies without the expertise or guidance of a trained health care provider can lead to dangerous outcomes.

An accurate diagnosis is crucial to accurate treatment and management of any illness or medical condition, and mental health is no exception. Many people may be skeptical of mental health care providers or feel uncomfortable talking about their anxieties, worries, or fears with a professional counselor or therapist, but treating mental illness incorrectly is just as dangerous as not treating it at all. A mental health care provider will diagnose patients based on their physical and psychological symptoms, using years of professional training, manuals and references, and research from colleagues and other health care providers. Relying on family and friends, television advertisements, or online self-assessments may not accurately explain the causes of your mental health concerns. An accurate diagnosis is the first step in determining which treatment options will have the best outcomes.

MedsSelf-treatment is prevalent for conditions from acne to zinc deficiency and everything in between. Choosing a medication for any condition is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Physicians and pharmacists have extensive training to be able to choose the right drug, at the right dose, for the right patient. Not all medicines are appropriate for every patient, due to medical and family history, drug interactions, and potential side effects. Further, some conditions may not require a medication at all. A trained professional may be able to teach coping techniques, plan exercise programs, or recommend cognitive therapy that will effectively treat mental health conditions.

By sidestepping health care providers in choosing medications and treatment options, patients may inadvertently place themselves at risk for serious drug-related consequences.

Self-monitoring of medication therapy involves assessing ones own symptoms and adjusting the dose or medication to alleviate the symptoms. In such instances, patients may choose an entirely inappropriate drug or dose for their medical condition. Some patients have attempted to manage anxiety symptoms with antihistamines or depression with OTC pain relievers. This leads to ineffective therapy for the underlying medical condition, overuse of unnecessary medication, and the potential for unwanted side effects and drug interactions.

Being a pro-active patient is extremely important in today’s health care environment, and investigating health information is key, but always seek appropriate guidance from a health care provider before diagnosing or treating your condition. Physicians and psychologists have experience to accurately diagnose mental health conditions and to suggest therapies that will work best for each individual; Pharmacists have the training to understand the drugs you are taking and can predict and prevent drug interactions and side effects. Be an active part of your health care team, but do not do it alone.


CHARLTON, B. (2005). Self-management of psychiatric symptoms using over-the-counter (OTC) psychopharmacology: The S-DTM therapeutic model – Self-diagnosis, self-treatment, self-monitoring. Medical Hypotheses, 65(5), 823-828. DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2005.07.013

Dipiro JT, et al. (2002), Pharmacotherapy: A pathophysiologic approach (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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