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Connection Between Substance Abuse and Mental Health

According to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, around 50% of people with severe mental disorders are also affected by substance use disorder.

Navigation: Substance Abuse and Mental Health: What is their Connection?, What is a Substance Use Disorder?, What is a Mental Illness?, Are Substance Use Disorders Caused by Mental Health Disorders?, Which Comes First: Substance Abuse or Mental Health Disorder?, How to Recognize a Dual Diagnosis, Treatment for Mental Health Disorders and Addiction, Rehab Is Your Best Chance


Substance use disorder and mental health conditions often co-occur. It’s easy to wonder if there is a connection between the two of them since they occur simultaneously so frequently.

When a person has both a substance abuse problem and a mental illness like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, this is called a dual diagnosis. It’s difficult to deal with these medical conditions, especially when you are struggling with all of their symptoms at once.

Addiction alone can be overwhelming enough. Having to suffer from mental health problems at the same time is too much for any individual. A person who has co-occurring disorders will experience unique symptoms from both their drug use and their mental health condition. It can get in the way of their home life, their career, their relationships, etc. A dual diagnosis will make it much harder for them to handle life’s challenges.

According to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, around 50% of people with severe mental disorders are also affected by substance use disorder. Meanwhile, 37% of alcohol users are reported to have at least one serious mental health problem.

These reports also showed that 29% of people who had a diagnosis for a mental illness were also abusing drugs or alcohol.

Meanwhile, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 7.7 million adults have a dual diagnosis.

This is why we need to discuss the relationship between drug use and mental disorders. With the right support and treatment, even those with a dual diagnosis can recover and live a long, sober life.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health: What is their Connection?

Substance abuse and mental health are often intertwined and can have a complex relationship. Substance abuse can lead to or worsen mental health conditions, and mental health conditions can lead to increased risk of substance abuse.

Substance misuse can also be used as a form of self-medication to cope with mental health symptoms, which can lead to a vicious cycle of substance abuse and worsening mental health.

While there is a connection between the two, this does not always mean that one caused the other. In fact, it can be hard to tell which one came first. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which one developed first.

It’s important to seek help from a mental health professional if you are struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. So if you or someone you love is engaging in excessive drinking or drug use, they need proper medical treatment in a rehab setting, especially if they have a co-occurring mental health disorder.

To further understand the connection between drug use and mental illness, we need to take a look at each individual medical condition.


What is a Substance Use Disorder?

A substance use disorder (SUD) is a condition where an individual has a persistent pattern of substance abuse that leads to significant impairment in their daily life, such as their relationships, work, and health. It is characterized by symptoms such as increased tolerance to the substance, withdrawal symptoms, using more of the substance than intended, and continued use despite negative consequences.

Substance use disorders can be classified into different categories based on the type of substance being abused, including alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, and cocaine use disorder.

Eventually the person develops addiction, which is a serious medical condition in which the person compulsively takes the drug even when they are already struggling with the adverse health effects. They will seek out the drug and treat it like their main priority.

Oftentimes, substance use disorder will also lead to drug dependence, which is described as the inability to quit without going through withdrawal. The person’s body has become reliant on the substance. They can no longer function normally without it. If they reduce or halt their intake, their body goes through withdrawal, which is marked by mild to severe withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, withdrawal can be life-threatening, so it’s not a good idea to quit without going through medical detox.

A substance use disorder can be extremely dangerous and have serious consequences for the individual and those around them. Substance abuse can lead to physical and psychological harm, increase the risk of accidental injury or death, and damage relationships, work and financial stability. Substance abuse can also cause dependence and addiction, which can be difficult to overcome without professional help.

What is a Mental Illness?

A mental illness is a health condition that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and overall functioning. These conditions often interfere with daily life and relationships, and may cause significant distress and impairment. Some common types of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

Other examples of mental health conditions include:

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Borderline personality disorder

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder)

Dissociative disorders

Schizoaffective disorder

Mental illnesses can be caused by a combination of biological, genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. They are typically diagnosed by mental health professionals and treated with a combination of medication, therapy, and other supportive services.

Are Substance Use Disorders Caused by Mental Health Disorders?

While there is evidence that mental health disorders can contribute to substance use disorders, substance use disorders can also lead to mental health disorders. In some cases, individuals may be struggling with both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder simultaneously.

It is also worth noting that sometimes these conditions can happen separately. They do not always cause one another.

However, it has been proven that having both of these conditions can worsen each other.

Studies have shown that individuals with mental health disorders are more likely to engage in substance use and are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. This may be due to a variety of factors, including using substances as a form of self-medication, a lack of access to effective mental health treatment, and a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors.

Substance abuse can alter brain chemistry, which can in turn exacerbate symptoms of mental health disorders. Substance abuse can also lead to social and financial problems, which can further contribute to mental health issues. This creates a deadly cycle of substance abuse and mental health problems.

Overall, the relationship between substance use disorders and mental health disorders is complex and bidirectional.

Individuals struggling with substance abuse need comprehensive treatment that addresses both their substance use and mental health concerns at the same time.

Which Comes First: Substance Abuse or Mental Health Disorder?

Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are closely linked to substance abuse, but they do not necessarily cause one another.

Some people self-medicate using drugs and alcohol to help them deal with the symptoms of mental illness. Alcohol, for example, is known to lower anxiety levels even just for a brief period of time.

In some cases, people don’t even realize they have a mental health problem because their condition remains undiagnosed. This is why they turn to drugs or alcohol instead of dealing with the actual source of the problem. Some people are in denial about their condition: they would rather change their mood and seek temporary relief rather than go to therapy and put in the hard work.

You should know that self-medicating only makes the problem worse because it puts you at risk of tolerance, addiction, and dependence. It also exposes you to all the potential side effects of your drug of choice. In the long run, this will only worsen the symptoms you are already dealing with.

On the flip side, it is also possible for people who have a substance use disorder to develop certain mental disorders. For people who are already at risk of developing mental health problems, drinking alcohol or abusing drugs can push them over the edge. There is evidence that points to the possibility of opioids causing depression, for instance.

It doesn’t matter which one comes first. Dealing with a dual diagnosis is difficult and it requires proper medical treatment.

How to Recognize a Dual Diagnosis

A dual diagnosis refers to a person who has both a mental illness and a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to identify a dual diagnosis. It takes time to identify the symptoms that come from a mental health condition and the symptoms that are from a drug or alcohol problem. These signs and symptoms may even vary depending on what substance the person is addicted to and what mental health problem they have.

In any case, you will want to watch out for certain signs and symptoms if you think someone you love has a dual diagnosis.

The first and most obvious sign is substance abuse. People with dual diagnoses often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate and cope with their mental health issues. If someone is using drugs or alcohol in excessive amounts, it may be a sign of a dual diagnosis.

If they are experiencing both mental health symptoms and substance abuse symptoms, it may be a sign of a dual diagnosis. This means they have symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Common signs and symptoms of depression include a lack of interest in daily activities, an inability to experience pleasure, sudden sleep changes, significant weight changes,  feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness, and difficulty concentrating.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety include: feelings of restlessness, excessive worry, irritability, feeling “on edge”, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia.

Common signs and symptoms of mania in bipolar disorder include: feelings of euphoria, extreme irritability, grandiose beliefs, decreased need for sleep, increased energy, impulsivity, hyperactivity, anger, rapid speech, and racing thoughts.

Other mental health problems that usually co-occur with addiction include schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People with a dual diagnosis may go through substance abuse treatment and fail repeatedly. But take note that relapsing is normal and not necessarily exclusive to those with a dual diagnosis. Don’t let relapse discourage you from seeking long-term sobriety.

Overall, they will have difficulty functioning on a daily basis. They will struggle at work, school, or in their relationships.

If you suspect someone has a dual diagnosis, it is important to seek professional help. A mental health professional can diagnose and treat both the mental illness and substance use disorder, leading to a better outcome for the individual.

Treatment for Mental Health Disorders and Addiction

Dual diagnosis treatment is a type of mental health treatment that addresses both a mental health condition and a substance abuse problem. It is designed to help individuals who have been diagnosed with both a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder, as they require specialized care that addresses both conditions. The goal of dual diagnosis treatment is to provide comprehensive care that addresses the interplay between the mental health and substance abuse issues, and helps individuals achieve and maintain recovery. This type of treatment typically involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication management, and support groups.

Mental health disorders and addiction can be treated through a combination of therapy, medication, and support from friends and family. Some common forms of treatment include:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps people change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their mental health disorder.

Psychotherapy: This type of therapy involves talking with a mental health professional to work through emotions and thoughts related to the mental health disorder.

Medication: Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers are commonly prescribed to treat mental health disorders.

Group therapy: Group therapy provides an opportunity for individuals to discuss their experiences with others who are facing similar challenges.

Support groups: Support groups can provide individuals with a sense of community and offer the opportunity to connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

Lifestyle changes: Incorporating healthy habits into daily life, such as exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep, can help improve mental health.

Residential treatment: This type of treatment involves living in a facility that provides 24-hour care and support for individuals struggling with mental health disorders and addiction.

The specific type of treatment that is best for an individual will depend on the severity of their condition, their personal preferences, and the resources available to them. A combination of treatment approaches is often the most effective approach.

Remember that there is always hope. As overwhelming as a dual diagnosis may be, you can still make a successful recovery and learn how to maintain your sobriety for the long term. Find the right treatment program for you. There are plenty of rehab facilities out there that specialize in dual diagnosis treatment, so start with that.

Make sure the program you choose is appropriately licensed and accredited. Their treatment methods should be backed by research. Aftercare is also important so that patients in recovery can stay on the right path. They can even join support groups to help them stick with their sobriety plan.

Look for a rehab center near you today that specializes in dual diagnosis treatment. Your journey to long-lasting sobriety begins today.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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