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Addiction and Mental Illness: Are They Connected?



It is a generally agreed-upon fact that roughly half of those with severe mental illnesses have an alcohol or substance abuse problem, and almost half of all people dependent on drugs or alcohol have some sort of mental illness. But is there a specific link between those with mental illnesses and substance abuse?

There are many reasons why someone with a mental illness would turn to drug or alcohol abuse. Of course, some start for recreational purposes, just like many others without a mental illness, but they are not a large percentage. Others become addicted to the prescription medications they are taking, and then turn to other drugs, or start taking drugs to cover up the symptoms of their illness.

Those with mental illnesses usually find it harder to form normal social relationships, and so turn to those neighborhoods or groups in which drug use is common, but where they are more easily accepted. Some also say it is easier to have an identity based on substance addiction than it is to have one based on mental illness. It is also possible that those with mental illnesses have lower inhibitions or impaired judgment, and that could lead them to substance abuse.

Living with a mental illness is very difficult, and some turn to substance abuse to try to ease that difficulty. Some with severe depression use different substances to feel a rush of happiness or try to mask the symptoms of sadness from their friends and family. Those with anxiety use to calm themselves and find relief from the anxiety, if only for a moment. Alcohol is the most common substance abused by those with anxiety disorders. Bipolar disorder patience can use to try to level out their extreme mood swings, and those with Schizophrenia or other hallucination disorders use to get away from the torment

Some studies suggest a connection between genetics or chemical deficiency and having co-existing issues. Genetics can play a part in having two disorders at the same time, and there are brain chemicals that seem to bind a mental disorder and substance abuse together, such as a decrease of serotonin linking anxiety and alcohol use. There is also some evidence of the environment having an impact too. However, while these show good evidence, they are hard to prove and there is ongoing research being done on the subjects.

The connection between mental illness and addiction is not a one-way street.  While some become dependent on alcohol and drugs to self-medicate their illness, other’s dependence causes symptoms that cannot be separated from those of mental illness. One disorder can lead to another. Withdrawal symptoms can mimic mental illnesses, and substance abuse can actually change the way your brain functions, thus causing mental illness.

For those who have both a problem with substance abuse and a mental disorder, it can be very hard to find help. It is difficult to know where the line between the mental illness symptoms and the substance abuse symptoms, and there are not many who deal in this dual-diagnosis. Patients jumping from one treatment center to another can sometimes cause more harm than good. Some dual-diagnosis treatment centers do treat both problems at once. For those who are, or know of someone, who is suffering from multiple illnesses, a dual-diagnostic treatment center may be the blessing between relapse and full recovery, because the connection between addiction and mental illnesses is more prevalent than you may think.