Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health: A Clear Connection

There is a clear connection between substance abuse and mental health. If you or someone you love experiences a co-occurring disorder involving alcohol or drugs and a mental health issue, you may need to provide help.

It makes sense that someone with a substance use disorder may also have a mental health disorder. Drugs and alcohol alter the way neurotransmitters are released, affecting moods. The dopamine neurotransmitter is known as the “feel-good” chemical, and the brain naturally produces dopamine. When you get excited or do something thrilling, you can feel a spike in dopamine levels. It gives you a temporary, mild high.

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

Substance Abuse and Mental Health

When you take drugs or drink alcohol, they cause a spike in dopamine that is hundreds of times higher than what your brain can produce naturally. The euphoria you feel is immeasurable. Your mood is excellent. However, when the substance leaves your system, harsh withdrawal symptoms occur, like depression and anxiety.

Determining which came first, the mental illness or the substance use disorder, is more complicated. Some people start with a mental illness and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Others use substances only to notice an onset, or increase, in mental health symptoms.

Because this is so common, it has a name, co-occurring disorder. You may also hear it called dual diagnosis treatment.

Here’s what you need to know about substance abuse and mental health.

What are Co-Occurring Disorders?

The nature of the diagnosis is critical in defining co-occurring. Someone must have both substance use and mental health disorder that co-occur. Some people may have more than two disorders occurring, including medical, that may contribute to their substance use disorder, mental illness, or both.

For example, if you have generalized anxiety that increases in severity when you smoke marijuana. Or, you experience hallucinations and paranoia for weeks or months following a weekend binge on methamphetamines.

The symptoms of each disorder can make the other worse and eventually interfere with work, personal, and social functioning of the person with a dual diagnosis.

Who Has Co-Occurring Disorders?

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.5 million Americans had a dual diagnosis in 2019. Both mental illness and substance use disorders can affect any person at any age and at any time. Reports state over 7% of people over the age of 50 have co-occurring conditions. Many people remain capable of working, including 10.6% of full-time workers.

These same reports claim out of three million employed people with a dual diagnosis, only 1.2 million sought treatment of any kind. Some of this group did receive treatment for one or the other.

There are risk factors for both substance use and mental health disorders, like genetics. If addiction, mental illness, or both run in your family, you may carry the same genes. However, just because you have the genes does not mean you will automatically have co-occurring disorders. There are numerous other risk factors at play, including biological, environmental, and social.

If you started using drugs as a teenager while the brain was not fully developed, you are at higher risk for a co-occurring disorder. Past traumatic events, medical issues, and brain chemistry are additional risk factors.

Which Disorders Co-Occur the Most?

There are hundreds of combinations of mental health and substance use disorders that create co-occurring disorders. It may be simpler to learn the most prevalent conditions in each category. 

Most Common Mental Illnesses

Common mental illnesses include depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety. Also, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder are common.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), millions are affected by each of these disorders. Anxiety-related disorders affect more than 48 million people each year. Depression affects over 19 million people and is the number one cause of disability in America. There are 9 million people with post-traumatic stress disorder, 7 million with bipolar disorder, and over 3 million with borderline and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the same report, NAMI shared that there are various demographic groups with a high prevalence of mental illness. The highest is among Lesbian, Bisexual, or Gay at 44.1%. Nearly 32% of non-Hispanic multi-racial, 18% Hispanic, 22% white, and 18% African American.

Most Common Substance Use Disorders

According to the National Center on Drug Abuse Statistics, Substance abuse disorders seem to be on the rise, affecting 20 million Americans. Marijuana and prescription pain pills are the most commonly misused substances. Over 15 million have an alcohol use disorder. Prescription stimulants, cocaine, opioids, methamphetamines, and heroin are not far behind.

Further statistics focus on co-occurring disorders, stating over 12 million adults had a severe or acute mental illness and substance use disorder within the previous year. Among the Lesbian, bisexual, and gay population, 6.3 million have a co-occurring disorder. Substance use disorders were more prevalent among males, but more women had co-occurring conditions.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Treatment for co-occurring disorders can start at any time, no matter how long you have had both a mental illness and substance use disorder. The most successful programs offer various layers of treatment based on individual needs. 

Detox is typically the first step. You can’t fully participate in treatment if you are still consuming drugs, alcohol, or both. Detox is a medically supervised program that uses medicines to ease physical discomfort and cravings. Once the substances are out of your system, you can focus on learning sobriety skills and managing your mental health.

You have treatment options, including inpatient rehab, which gives you around-the-clock medical supervision, as well as individual and group therapy. Partial hospitalization provides five days of structured therapy services but allows you to go home at night. Intensive outpatient services offer individual and group therapy ten or more hours each week. You can live at home and attend work and recovery meetings in the times away from the program. At each level, you can learn early recovery and relapse prevention skills. You can improve communication, problem-solving, and participation in family therapy.

If you think you have a co-occurring disorder, reach out to a local treatment specialist to discover which program will benefit you the most. We can help you get back to living the life you deserve.