Tug of War: The Mental Health / Addiction Connection

In a world hyper-focused on the body, on physical appearance, fitness and health, the well-being and fitness of the mind is often overlooked. It’s importance, especially among everyday people like you and me, is often underestimated and stigmatized. And yet mental health is absolutely essential.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” 1

From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, mental health encompasses how we think (psychological), how we feel (emotional) and how we act (social well-being). Mental health determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. In other words, a strong, healthy mind is the compass that makes everything possible.

Unlike our efforts to be physically healthy — most of which is a matter of daily, personal choice — being mentally healthy isn’t always within an individual’s ability to control.

Extenuating factors play a significant role in mental health issues, including:

  • Biological factors, brain chemistry, structure or genes
  • Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
  • Family history of mental health problems 2

Types of Mental Illness

There are many different types of mental illness, conditions that impact an individual’s ability to relate and function in life. Like most physical illness, mental illness doesn’t just happen overnight. It begins early — half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 246 — and symptoms are often masked by typical adolescent changes in personality. But the symptoms and signs only increase over time, impacting the individual’s ability to function in every aspect of life.

Mental health issues can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • ADHD – A developmental disorder where there are significant problems with attention, hyperactivity or acting impulsively
  • Anxiety Disorders – When it becomes overwhelming and repeatedly impacts a person’s life, it may be an anxiety disorder
  • Autism – Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that makes it difficult to socialize and communicate with others
  • Bipolar – Bipolar disorder causes dramatic highs and lows in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly
  • Depression – A common, but serious mood disorder that impacts a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors and sense of well-being
  • Eating Disorders – Preoccupation with food and weight issues make it hard for sufferers to focus on other aspects of life or view their weight/body accurately
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – PTSD is the result of traumatic events, such as military combat, assault, an accident or a natural disaster
  • Schizophrenia – Schizophrenia causes people to lose touch with reality, often in the form of hallucinations, delusions and extremely disordered thinking and behavior 3

Medical research suggests the causes behind these conditions are as varied and unique as the individual who experiences them. Genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether a mental health condition surfaces. Stressful living situations and jobs make some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like the being the victim of a crime or experiencing the death of a loved one.

More often than not, there are multiple causes connecting one issue to another. Whatever the contributing factors or causes, these mental health issues can be treated successfully. With early diagnosis, treatment and ongoing support, mental illness is not incurable. Recovery is possible.

The Addiction Connection

There is an undeniable connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances. And over time, any number of mental conditions may surface within one individual, each with its own set of unique causes and symptoms, as well as its own appropriate intervention and dual diagnosis treatment methods.

Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5 percent — 10.2 million adults — had a co-occurring mental illness4
Why? There are myriad reasons. Simply put, people who struggle with these issues, diagnosed and undiagnosed, often exhibit self-destructive behaviors — including abusing drugs, alcohol and prescription medication — to medicate the symptoms disrupting their lives. To calm the storm raging in their heads.

For example, a patient diagnosed with ADHD, experiencing significant problems with attention, hyperactivity or acting impulsively, has a prescription for Adderall. After months or years of taking it as prescribed, the patient feels he needs more of the drug to achieve the same energy or motivation as before, so he may experiment with cocaine or crystal meth to deal with his ongoing symptoms.

People who struggle with depression, whether diagnosed or not, may turn to marijuana or other prescription drugs to cope. Patients who suffer from social anxiety or panic attacks might use benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax to deal with the stress of social interaction or to prohibit symptoms of an attack.

What seems like common sense — if this drug works, then more of it or another drug could work better — is actually a game of Russian roulette.

Symptoms of One Disorder Can Trigger the Other

Adding to the mental illness/addiction cycle and complexity is the fact that certain substances can create problems that trigger mental health symptoms. Paranoia, depression, anxiety and delusions that exist under the influence of the drug may not go away once the drugs wear off, often indicating a co-occurring mental health disorder.

For example, people who abuse alcohol or drugs often experience the side effect of depression. When not using, depression may deepen, growing more serious over time. The substance abuse may then lead to poor decisions that result in additional consequences or health issues.

Co-occurring Treatment Methods

When someone is diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder — a mental health issue in tandem with substance addiction — an integrated, comprehensive treatment program for both disorders is essential. Why? Because left untreated, substance abuse will likely render any treatment for the mental illness ineffective, while untreated mental health issues will make sobriety increasingly difficult.

Integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders identifies the severity of two distinctive disorders and provides appropriately intensive treatment plans for both simultaneously. It also increases patient motivation and participation, essential to the completion of treatment. Specialized, targeted therapies give dual diagnosis patients the information and support they need to overcome their issues and achieve sustainable, lasting recovery.

1 who.int
2 mentalhealth.gov
3 nami.org
4 nami.org
5 foundationsrecoverynetwork.com SAMHSA, 2013a

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