mental health and substance abuse

The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Connection

Those struggling with both mental health problems and substance abuse are described as living with a co-occurring condition. The term, co-occurring, indicates that two or more factors are existing at the same time. Co-occurring disorders may also be classified as a Dual-Diagnosis.

In this article, we’re taking a look at the clear connection between mental health and substance abuse.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

In previous times, it was considered that any substance abuse issues needed to be addressed before addressing the mental health problems. Treatment mentality has evolved to recognize that the interdependent nature of mental health and substance abuse is better approached through a collaborative effort. As such, those with a co-occurring disorder are likely to receive both substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling, concurrently. 

Let’s explore the connection between mental health and substance abuse.

Prevalence of co-occurring Diagnoses

Now that mental health experts have recognized the importance of identifying how the substance abuse issues and the mental health concerns intermingle, instances of accurately diagnosing the problem have increased. Recent data indicates that nearly 10 million young adults qualify for this diagnosis on an annual basis, and around 40% of all adults with a substance use disorder also suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. Unfortunately, a relatively small number of those who qualify for the diagnosis will end up seeking adequate treatment.

Which Comes First?

One of the important attributes of treating co-occurring disorders is that there is no need to determine which factor is the primary problem. As mentioned, old school thought involved the belief that mental health treatment was dependent upon the participant being of sober mind. For someone with a co-occurring disorder, removing the effect of substances can end up leaving a gaping hole where the sense of self should be. Finding a way to fill the void that substance abuse has previously been occupying is the goal of co-occurring treatment. As substance use decreases, mental health increases.

Barriers to Treatment for co-occurring Disorders

While the above scenario describes the desired outcome of co-occurring treatment, the opposite interaction between mental health and substance abuse is also prevalent. Most people recognize that the self that we present while under the influence is very different from the self that we are while sober. This means that the inspiration and drive for change that we may experience during sober treatment can disappear, in a flash, once substances are reintroduced. One of the most difficult barriers to successful treatment of co-occurring disorders is the slide of the participant back into the clutches of the influence of the substance.

Even though this backsliding may occur, there is good news. While antiquated thinking implied that this type of regressive behavior was a failure, modern thinking has evolved to recognize that relapse can still be a part of recovery. Sometimes, we have to stick our toes back into something before we realize that it isn’t what we genuinely want for ourselves. 

Related: How to Prevent Relapse (6 Helpful Tips)

Other barriers to treatment for co-occurring disorders can involve a lack of education and training on behalf of the treatment program. Just as success breeds more success, repeated failure to obtain a life of sobriety can contribute to experiences of frustration and hopelessness. If prior experiences of ineffective treatment are keeping you from seeking help again, consider looking for a better-fitted program.

Importance of Addressing Both Factors

Just as reintroduced substance use can be a barrier to moving forward in treatment, persistent mental health disorders can play a role in giving in to the temptation to use. Many mental health professionals have adopted the view of substance abuse as playing the role of self-medication. Drugs and alcohol can produce pleasant experiences, as well as unpleasant ones. The pleasurable experiences of substances can include relief from feelings of social anxiety, increase confidence, and decrease fears about the future.  All of these issues are also associated with mental health diagnoses, and finding a way to treat them effectively can lead to a decreased temptation to self-medicate with substances. The negative consequences that inevitably come with substance abuse make this proper form of treatment very worthwhile.

Co-occurring Disorder Treatment

Approaches for best treating co-occurring disorders are continually evolving. While the specific curriculum or treatment modality may vary, co-occurring treatment programs generally consist of the following components. Each of these components focuses on a unique aspect of the complex nature of the co-occurring disorder.

Substance Abuse Counseling

It wouldn’t make any sense not to address the elephant in the room when it comes to substance abuse. Most co-occurring treatment programs will have dedicated a portion of the treatment to focus on the substance use behavior, directly. Substance abuse treatment professionals have received specific education and are exclusively certified to help clients navigate the perilous road of recovery.

Individual Therapy

Another important component of treatment for co-occurring disorder lies in the treatment of the underlying mental health conditions. Individual therapy is provided by a licensed professional, including Marriage and Family Therapists, Clinical Social Workers, and Licensed Professional Counselors. Together with your mental health therapist, you will work to identify and address the specific factors which are contributing to – and exacerbated by – substance use.

Group Therapy

The benefits of group therapy are well recognized in many forms of treatment, and treatment for co-occurring disorders is no exception. The dynamics of group therapy lend themselves to a type of personal exploration that can only be undertaken in the presence of peers and while under the guidance of a skilled group facilitator. Group work can both provide a sense of self-acceptance and can foster self-growth.

Skills Training

Learning to live a life of sobriety is a mountain to climb. Effectively addressing the mental health disorders which have played a role in substance abuse is yet another mountain. Not having the skills required to build a life without substance abuse is an obstacle that can seem insurmountable. For this reason, many co-occurring treatment programs will include a focus on helping you to develop the skills necessary to reach your goals of a life worth living.