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Addiction and Mental Health: How do They Go Hand in Hand?

In 2018, almost 165 million people in the US aged 12 years and older were “past-month” substance users. That’s over 60% of the US population who smoked tobacco, drank alcohol, or used illicit drugs. Of these people, almost 32 million took some type of illicit drug.

That’s how big the problem of substance use in the US is. Worse, it can progress to abuse and addiction, which can then lead to mental disorders.

Severe mental illness, however, could also be the precursor to one’s addiction. In fact, half of those with a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder.

The question is, what exactly is the link between these two? How does having one increase the risk of also developing the other?

We’ll answer all these questions in this post, so be sure to keep reading!

Addiction: A Type of Mental Illness on Its Own

Scientists have found that a drug-addicted brain is different from a normal brain. They found differences in the areas of the brain associated with judgment. The same goes for the parts of the brain linked to decision making, learning, and behavior control.

That said, addiction in itself is already a form of mental illness, as it results in brain changes. With substance addiction, the chemicals consumed (like alcohol or drugs) trigger these changes. These changes occur in the brain’s wirings, resulting in distorted thinking and behaviors.

For instance, these substances cause intoxication, an intense feeling of pleasure and calm. Intoxication may also either heighten or blunt one’s senses. It also intensifies one’s feelings of pleasure, more commonly referred to as a “high”.

Moreover, these substances alter a person’s normal desires, either amplifying or deadening them.

Another way that alcohol or drug use changes the brain is by making it “tolerant”. These substances can cause molecular, cellular, or behavioral tolerance. This then makes the addicted brain need even more of the substance to feel its effects.

Either way, these brain changes make an addicted person want to keep using the substance. That’s despite knowing how harmful the substance is. They keep taking these substances until they no longer have control of their lives.

Severe Mental Illness and Addiction: How Often the Two Occur Together

In 2018, almost one in five (47.6 million) adults in the US had a mental illness. 11.4 million of them had a serious mental illness.

What’s more, of those who had a mental illness, 9.2 million also had substance use disorder (SUD). Meaning, one in five sufferers of mental illness were also suffering from SUD.

A person who suffers from both has a condition called or “co-morbid” disorders. Some also refer to it as “co-occurring” or “dual-diagnosis” disorders. For instance, someone with cocaine addiction may also be suffering from depression.

Although they can co-occur with each other, it doesn’t always mean one caused the other. It can also be difficult to determine which came first. One reason is that mental illnesses share similar symptoms with SUDs.

For example, productivity and relationship problems are common in those with alcohol addiction. These are, however, also common in people with anxiety or depression.

Still, having a mental illness can make a person more prone to developing SUD or vice versa.

Self-Medicating with Substance to Ease the Symptoms of Mental Illness

In the US, anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness. It affects over 40 million people aged 18 and older. Specific phobias, major depressive disorder, and social anxiety disorder are also very common.

Many of these share similar symptoms, such as confused thinking and excessive worries. Mental illnesses also make it hard to concentrate and can cause severe mood changes. They can also cause a person to withdraw from their friends or activities.

A lot of people with a mental illness also suffer from severe feelings of hopelessness. They may even experience physical pain and have trouble sleeping.

These facts about mental illness already shed light on how they can raise one’s risk for SUD. In the hopes of easing their symptoms, people with mental illness may turn to drugs or alcohol. They self-medicate so they can stop feeling extreme sadness or they just want to fall asleep.

Mental Illnesses May Boost a Substance’s “Rewarding” Effects

Mental illness can also change the brain’s “reward” perception. It may intensify the “feel-good” or “high” effects of substances. This, in turn, can make a person with mental illness use these substances even more.

Some people may also turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the side effects of medications. For example, some antidepressant drugs can cause sleep problems such as insomnia. To counter these sleep problems, they may turn to alcohol’s sedative effects.

Turning to Substances to “Attempt” To Forget about Past Trauma

Some people who’ve had traumatic experiences are also at risk of SUD. In fact, studies found that trauma exposure significantly increases the risk of SUD. In a study of adolescents in substance abuse programs, 70% had a traumatic experience.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another huge risk factor for SUD. Studies found that PTSD patients are up to five times more at risk of developing SUD.

Help is Available for Both Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorder

As you’ve learned, serious mental illnesses can give rise to substance use disorders. On their own, they’re already life-threatening, but together, they’re even more dangerous. As such, if you or your child is suffering from severe mental illness or SUD, it’s important to get help ASAP.

Unsure how to proceed with SUD treatment or how to talk to your child about getting help? If so, then please don’t hesitate to connect with us now. We’ll be more than happy to help you take the right steps towards living a substance-free life.