Multiple studies have revealed that there is a complex relationship between mental illness and addiction. Experts posit that more than half (55%) of people who suffer from an addiction a substance(s) will ultimately develop a mental health condition. Conversely, 20% of people with a mental health disorder have a co-occurring addiction problem. These include but are not limited to:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Anxiety and/or panic attacks
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personal disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Because addiction and mental illness are exacerbated when left untreated, mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals must understand the intricate relationship between these disorders so they can diagnose accordingly and ensure that patients receive appropriate and effective treatment.
Psychoactive Substances Obscure Syptoms of Mental Illness
Most experts contend that persons with a psychiatric condition are impulsive and tend to engage in high-risk activities such as drinking heavily and consuming illicit drugs or abusing prescription medication.
Another common belief is that people with mental illness may have impaired judgement relative to others. This may eventually lead to alcohol and drug abuse.
Compromised judgment can result in the inability to make sound and informed decisions, and lead to poor, possibly harmful choices even in the face of the ongoing problems that heavy substance use creates (i.e. legal problems, financial insecurity, conflicts in relationships, etc.)
External Factors and Substance Abuse
And yet, not everyone with a mental health condition(s) abuses drugs or alcohol to bury negative thoughts and feelings. Indeed, there are multiple factors that contribute to a higher risk of substance abuse among those with mental illness.
These include, but are not limited to the following:
- Genetics (i.e. family history of addiction to substances or behaviors)
- Brain chemical imbalance (i.e. deficiency of critical “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin)
- Environment during child/adolescent/young adult years (i.e. abuse, neglect, PTSD, etc.)
- Community standards – Living among peers who use substances or an environment where drug or alcohol abuse is considered acceptable can lead to experimentation and ultimately, addiction
Substance Abuse Can Contribute to or Directly Cause Mental Illness
Those who have developed an addiction to either drugs or alcohol may be at a heightened risk of developing a mental illness or exacerbating existing symptoms. This may be especially true when the substance interacts or negates prescription medication such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety or anti-psychotic drugs.
A converse relationship between mental health and addiction may be a result of substance use contributing to brain changes and withdrawal symptoms following cessation of use. Also, people who misuse drugs and alcohol are vulnerable to depression and anxiety over time.
Physicians Must Diagnose Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Conditions Concurrently
Most addiction and mental health care providers agree that diagnosing mental illness and addiction is challenging, but that it is critical that both disorders be correctly assessed in conjunction to avoid additional complications and identify the origins of each condition. Still, it is not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose, underdiagnosed or mistreat disorders, especially mental illness.
Symptoms of mental illness can be markedly different than those occurring as a result of substance abuse. For example, symptoms of depression may include:
- Low energy/fatigue
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Suicidal ideations
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Trouble concentration
- Excessive worry over present and future events
Finding the Most Effective Treatment for Mental Illness and Addiction
Depending on a patient’s condition and symptoms, the doctor may encourage separate treatments for mental Illness and addiction disorders.
Moreover, treatment for mental health problems may consist of medication, deep introspection, and lifestyle changes, while addiction treatment often involves a clinical detox, substance abuse education, holistic practices such as art therapy and also support groups.
Furthermore, there will also likely be some overlap – for example, behavioral therapies and counseling can effectively treat both.
During the healing and recovery process, treatment providers will often teach and encourage patients to engage in the following lifestyle changes, if needed:
- Adherence to a consistent exercise schedule
- Self-management of stress and negative thoughts/feelings
- Consistent participation in hobbies, activities, and interests
- Fostering of healthy relationships to friends and family
- Identification of triggers and ways to cope with them
- Mindfulness and meditation to help deal with triggers and cravings
Healthcare professions may also urge patients to learn as much as they can about substance and the role they have played in their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.