Addiction to drugs and alcohol (often called Substance Use Disorder or SUD) is a mental health problem. It can be caused by a combination of behavioral, biological, and environmental factors, and like other mental health issues, can disrupt the ability to function at work or school, maintain healthy relationships, and cope with stressful situations. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA), over 20 million people aged 12 or older have a substance use disorder related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs.
It’s important to know that mental health problems and substance use disorders often occur together (you’ll hear medical and mental health professionals refer to this as comorbidity) - but sometimes it's hard to predict which came first. In this article, we’ll discuss the close connection between addiction and mental health, four facts about that connection, general warning signs, and how to get help.
What causes the connection between addiction and mental health issues?
Multiple scientific studies have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder at some point and vice versa. The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that an estimated 9.2 million adults aged 18 or older had both a mental health problem and an addiction to at least one substance in the past year, while another 3.2 million adults had a co-occurring severe mental health problem and substance abuse. Medical and mental health professionals theorize that these problems frequently occur together for various reasons, such as:
- Certain kinds of illegal drugs can cause people with addiction issues to experience one or more symptoms of mental health problems
- Some people with a mental health problems may misuse drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication
- Mental and substance use disorders share some underlying causes, including changes in brain composition, genetic vulnerabilities, and early exposure to stress or trauma
The bottom line is that dealing with substance abuse and drug addiction is never easy, and it’s even more difficult when you’re also struggling with mental health problems. And to make matters worse, these co-occurring disorders can affect each other. For example, when a mental health problem goes untreated, the substance abuse problem usually gets worse. And when alcohol or drug abuse increases, mental health problems usually increase too.
To expand on the information above, here are 4 important things to know about the connection between addiction and mental health.
- Untreated mental health disorders increase the risk of substance abuse. People who suffer from mental disorders are often more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve their symptoms. And although the substances may provide temporary relief, they can exacerbate symptoms in the long run, leading to further addiction problems and ultimately, an unhealthy cycle.
- Substance abuse can cause depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Although not everyone who misuses substances like drugs or alcohol will develop mental health problems, if someone is predisposed to a mental health disorder, those symptoms can be triggered by substance abuse.
- Substance abuse shares common symptoms with some mental health issues. Alcohol and other central nervous system depressants can trigger symptoms of depression. Conversely, stimulants, such as cocaine, can cause drug-induced psychosis - a symptom usually associated with schizophrenia. In both cases, chronic use can result in irreversible changes to brain chemistry.
- Mental disorders and substance use disorders - even when occurring together - are treatable. The good news - whether a person has a mental disorder, a substance use disorder, or both, there are a number of treatment options that can result in effective and long-term management of symptoms.
Getting help for co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders
It can take time to tease out which symptoms are associated with a mental health disorder and which are associated with a drug or alcohol addiction problem. The signs and symptoms may also vary depending on the type of mental health problem and type of substance being abused. However, there are some general agreed-upon warning signs that someone may have a co-occurring disorder:
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope with unpleasant memories or feelings, or to control pain or mood intensity
- Feeling depressed, anxious, or plagued by unpleasant memories when using drugs or alcohol
- Feel depressed or anxious even when sober
- A family member who has also struggled with both a mental disorder and alcohol or drug abuse
Mental health professionals can help diagnose and treat co-occurring disorders, so the first step if you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, is to consult a professional. Although the combination of mental health and addiction issues may seem complicated, there is help. Some people respond to treatment right away. Others will need to try different treatments before finding a combination that works for them. But stick with it as they have been proven effective.
If you or a loved one need help with substance abuse or mental health issues, consider contacting a qualified telebehavioral health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals are trained in multiple mental health disorders and have experience treating them via online appointments - from the convenience and privacy of your home or wherever works for you. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.