Mental Illness And The Connection To Substance Abuse

by Jennifer Woodson Thursday, October 6, 2016


The use of drugs and alcohol in individuals suffering from a form of mental illness has been well documented and studied over the years, but it is very difficult to state definitively whether one causes the other. While it’s true people living with mental illness are more at risk for addiction if they use substances to self-medicate, the state of one’s mental health is not necessarily a predictor of abuse. There is a link, however, and it can be a devastating one for the affected individuals and their families.

The reasons for substance abuse vary from person to person; some are genetically inclined toward risky behaviors and coping mechanisms, while others are affected by their environment.

“It is estimated that 40-60 percent of an individual's vulnerability to addiction is attributable to genetics…But genes can also act indirectly by altering how an individual responds to stress or by increasing the likelihood of risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviors…” reads an article on DrugAbuse.gov.

Some substance abuse leads to changes in the brain, causing mood disorders such as depression. This can make it very difficult for medical professionals to diagnose one or the other, because substances can mask certain disorders with similar symptoms. In some cases, substances cause severe changes and lead to the individual taking still more drugs to cope with them, a ruthless cycle that leaves a trail of confusion, guilt, and health risks.

Some of the most common mental health issues associated with substance abuse are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. These disorders can cause impaired judgment, impulsive behavior, and the desire to take risks, sometimes in order to cope with their thoughts or feelings. It is important for the individual to seek professional care in order to be diagnosed properly, so that treatment can be tailored. For instance, bipolar disorder is very complex and often can’t be diagnosed during childhood or teen years because the symptoms can mimic normal emotional development. Substance abuse can make it difficult to uncover because drugs and alcohol affect emotions and behavior, causing manic mood swings and bouts of depression.

It’s important for individuals to know what to look for where substance abuse and mental health disorders are concerned. Some common behaviors include:

      Withdrawing from social activities

      Experiencing manic periods of elation, then swiftly dropping into low gear

      A decline in physical appearance or health

      Bouts of rage or violence

      A decline in performance at work or school

      Sleeping too much or too little; same with appetite

      Lack of joy in things that once made them happy

If your loved one is experiencing these behaviors, it may be time to start a conversation. Offer your help without accusatory statements and let them know they are not alone. Forming a support system is the best way to ensure your loved one will find success in treatment.

Jennifer enjoys serving the public as a writer for PublicHealthCorps.org.

Photo via Pixabay by Unsplash

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