Individuals struggling with both substance abuse and mental health issues have what is referred to as a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to recognize which is the primary issue, as symptoms may overlap. A mental health diagnosis, such as clinical depression, can exacerbate an individual’s problems with drug or alcohol use. Similarly, a person experiencing a substance use disorder may find that their mental health deteriorates as their use escalates. When left untreated, co-occurring disorders can lead to a vicious cycle of repeated drug use and the worsening of mental health symptoms. To better understand their contributing factors and associations, the addiction experts at Banyan rehab locations are sharing more on how addiction affects mental health.
Is Addiction a Mental Illness?
Yes, addiction is a mental health issue. Addiction falls under the category of Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a widely accepted diagnostic manual for mental health disorders. Addiction is considered a mental illness because it involves an interplay of psychological, genetic, and environmental factors that contribute to the development and persistence of substance use despite repercussions.
The neurological changes caused by addiction further highlight its classification as a mental health disorder, as it impacts brain function, decision-making, and emotional regulation. Effective treatment approaches often integrate both medical and behavioral interventions, such as psychotherapy services, to address the underlying psychological aspects of substance abuse.
How Does Addiction Affect Mental Health?
Understanding how addiction affects mental health is crucial for determining the appropriate care for the individual. Ultimately, addiction affects mental health by changing areas of the brain that are disrupted in mental health disorders like schizophrenia, anxiety, mood, and impulse-control disorders.
Changes In the Brain
How drugs affect mental health has a lot to do with the physical changes they cause in the brain, which can impact functions and areas of the brain associated with mental illness. For instance, while stimulants like cocaine and meth can cause temporary euphoria by spiking dopamine levels, long-term use can deplete the brain of dopamine and cause it to “forget” how to regulate the chemical on its own, which may contribute to conditions like depression.
Common Risk Factors
Another reason for comorbidity between addiction and mental illness is shared risk factors. Risk factors like genetic vulnerabilities, environmental factors (such as chronic stress, trauma, or drug exposure), brain region involvement, stress, and trauma can all contribute to both addictions and mental health disorders.
Self-Medicating Mental Illness
Unfortunately, many individuals do not receive the mental health treatment necessary to help them cope with their symptoms. As a result, these individuals may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, as substance use may temporarily reduce symptoms or impair the individual enough that they may forget. However, long-term substance use can disrupt brain functions and regions associated with mental illness, which can exacerbate symptoms.
Lack of Evaluation and Management
Additionally, patients often go without the appropriate medication evaluation and management until they are seeking treatment following a crisis. There is a misconception that it is only the patients who have gone without any medication or who have been non-compliant with their regimens that are most likely to struggle with the use of drugs or alcohol. While medication noncompliance often plays a large role in the increased use of substances, those who are on medication can battle addiction just the same.
As Rob Cole, LMHC, clinical director of mental health services at Banyan Treatment Centers, explains, finding the right medication protocol to address a mental health disorder is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the process of finding the best treatment for each person is like trying to find “the right key to open the lock,” so to speak. Every patient is a unique individual who will react differently to any given medication.
What works for one will not always work for another. It can take time and persistence to find the best fit. This can be tiresome and frustrating for someone struggling with a mental health disorder. They may seek out drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate when doctor-prescribed medications have “failed.”
Substance use often allows patients to feel “better,” “normal,” or “in control.” They may use stimulants to bring themselves “up” and depressants or sedatives to bring themselves “down.” This is an extremely dangerous cycle, and patients are often in need of long-term treatment to break free.
Additionally, a patient with a primary mental health diagnosis can worsen their existing symptoms with the use of drugs and alcohol. Substances can decrease the effectiveness of medications that were otherwise beneficial and induce mood swings in those struggling with a diagnosis such as bipolar disorder.
What if Addiction Is the Primary Issue?
A co-occurring disorder with substance use as the primary diagnosis is similar to primary mental health diagnoses in many ways. Many individuals who struggle with addiction develop conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood swings, along with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Those struggling with addiction can find themselves unemployed, homeless, and without emotional support from those they were once close with.
These circumstances alone would cause a deteriorating state of mental health in an otherwise healthy person. Add drugs and alcohol to the mix, and you may observe drastic mood swings, unpredictability, and a person who seems to be out of control. For those suffering from a dual diagnosis with addiction as the primary issue, these symptoms often improve when the substance abuse is addressed.
How to Help Someone With Dual Diagnosis
If a loved one is struggling with addiction or a mental health disorder, encourage them to seek help and set firm boundaries. Don’t enable your loved one by allowing them to neglect themselves.
Make it clear that in order for your relationship to continue, they must take action to get better. Don’t make excuses for your loved one, justify their behavior, allow them to steal or lie to you, and don’t fund their drinking or drug habit.
You can also ask for help from someone you trust. A parent, a close friend, or a trusted doctor. Even if it is your family doctor and not a provider who specializes in mental health or addiction treatment, they will be able to refer you to the correct professional.
Physicians often have a list of treatment providers, rehabilitation programs, and counselors or therapists that they have worked with in the past and know which ones their patients have had positive experiences with. There are also national helplines that you can call and resources that you can find online. For instance, Banyan has a drug and alcohol help hotline that can connect you to various resources in your area.