What is the Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Illness?

A look into the connection and linkages between substance use disorder and mental illness…plus the call for proper diagnosis and treatment. From expect Contributor, Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D.

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Addiction and Mental Illness Require Treatment

Much research has shown that there is an extremely complex relationship between addiction and mental illness. According to a renowned addiction psychiatrist at New York University by the name of Dr. Stephen Gilman, approximately 55 percent of people who are suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction will eventually develop a mental disorder. On the other hand, roughly 20 percent of people with a mental condition also have a serious addiction problem. The numbers are expected to be significantly higher when people are diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses like:

  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

Since substance abuse problems and mental health conditions are only exacerbated when ignored, healthcare professions must understand the relationship between these two disorders so that they can be properly diagnosed and treated.

Drugs And Alcohol May Mask Symptoms

Many professionals believe that those with a psychiatric disorder are prone to engage in high risk activities like drinking excessively and experimenting with illegal drugs. Dr. James Garbutt, who is a distinguished psychiatric professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests that those with a mental health condition may have a compromised judgment, which ultimately results in higher drug and alcohol consumption. These risky behaviors can quickly result in substance abuse.

On the other hand, many people with a mental condition may use alcohol and drugs to pacify the troubling symptoms. These are some of the most common mental illnesses that result in substance abuse.

Depression: Although females are more likely to struggle with depression, males can also have a hard time dealing with this disorder. Both males and females have been known to mask their low energy levels and sadness with depression.

Schizophrenia: With disturbing symptoms like hallucinations and delusions, those with schizophrenia may use substances to help them cope with this illness.

Bipolar Disorder: Some people with bipolar disorder may rely on substances to control their unpredictable depression and high moods.

Anxiety: Males and females who are suffering from an anxiety disorder often resort to alcohol or drugs to calm their nerves.

Addiction and External Factors

Not everyone is using drugs and alcohol to deal with their difficult symptoms. In some cases, substance abuse in those with a mental condition could be out of their control. Here are some other factors that could cause the correlation between substance abuse and mental illness.

Genetics: When substance abuse and mental illness occur at the same time, genetic factors could be the cause.

Brain Chemicals: Studies have indicated that a deficiency in the important brain chemicals called serotonin and monoamine oxidases could be a reason why substance abuse and psychiatric conditions often coincide together.

Environment: The environment in which a mentally ill person is raised could increase his likelihood of engaging in drug and alcohol usage.

Substance Abuse May Cause Mental Illness

While people with a mental illness could resort to substance abuse, the opposite is also likely to happen. In other words, those with alcohol and drug addictions may be at risk of developing a mental health disorder or make symptoms of an existing condition considerably worse. This is especially true when drug or alcohol interacts with certain prescription pills like mood stabilizers.

The inverse relationship between addiction and mental illness could be due to substance abuse causing changes in the brain and withdrawal symptoms from unsuccessfully stopping drug and alcohol usage. In addition, males and females who abuse drugs and alcohol tend to become depressed and anxious over time.

Doctors Must Diagnose Addiction And Mental Illness Simultaneously

Most professionals agree that diagnosing addiction and mental conditions is often difficult, but it’s extremely important that the symptoms from these two disorders be properly accessed at the same time to prevent further complications and determine the causes of each disorder. In most cases, doctors can evaluate the symptoms effectively when a person has been free of drugs and alcohol for at least two weeks. But even when the addiction and the mental symptoms are treated simultaneously, some doctors still misdiagnosis and mistreat the conditions.

When diagnosing those with possible substance abuse, the doctor may observe signs of guilt or shame regarding substances, relationship problems, frequent trouble with law enforcement, and history of going through prescription medication at a fast rate.

The signs and symptoms of a mental health condition can differ drastically from a substance abuse problem. For example, the symptoms of depression may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Low energy
  • Loss of interest in regular activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness

The signs of anxiety may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Fast-beating heart
  • Concentration problems
  • Nausea
  • Constant worry

The Best Treatment For Addiction And Mental Illness

Depending on a patient’s specific conditions, the doctor may recommend separate treatment for the mental health and substance abuse problems. While treatment for the mental illness may consist of medication, weekly counseling sessions, lifestyle and diet changes, and meditation, substance abuse treatment often involves a comprehensive detox program, behavioral therapy, and sobriety support groups.

During the journey to healing and recovery, experienced healthcare professionals will advise patients to do the following:

  • Adhere to a consistent exercise routine.
  • Manage overwhelming feelings of stress.
  • Regularly engage in activities and interests.
  • Stay connected to family and friends.
  • Understand certain triggers.

A licensed healthcare professional may also encourage patients to learn as much information as they can about alcohol and drugs and the role they play in their life. Once they have identified why they seek out substances, they can recognize the triggers that lead to destructive behaviors.

The Future Is Promising

Recovering from addiction and a mental health condition can be a roller coaster, but doctors and mental health professionals are committed to making it a smooth process with proper diagnoses and treatments. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction or a mental health disorder, reach out for help today. With the medical treatment of licensed healthcare professionals, you can lead a happy and healthy life.

About the author
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY17766), a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist and a Certified Youth Residential Treatment Administrator. Dr. Nalin is the Founder and Clinical Director of Paradigm Malibu and Paradigm San Francisco Adolescent Treatment Centers. He has been responsible for the direct care of young people at multiple institutions of learning including; The Los Angeles Unified School District, the University of California at San Diego, Santa Monica College, and Pacific University. He was instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
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