The Relationship Between Mental Health and Drug Dependency

Portrait of a worried girl sitting on the beachSix in every 10 individuals with a drug abuse problem also have an associated mental health condition. (1) There's always a reason people start using drugs, and oftentimes it's a pre-existing mental condition. It may be something as simple as curiosity that gets the ball rolling. For some, there is a deeper reason to use drugs. Drug abuse is a form of self-medication for people who are unhappy, feel overwhelmed or who can’t cope with manic cycles. Understanding the relationship between drug abuse and comorbid conditions is critical to helping a loved one with an addiction problem.

The Consequences of Addiction

Addiction is characterized by the inability to stop using a drug despite the consequences it has on your life and body. (2) It's true that people decide to use the first time, but addiction itself is never a personal choice. There comes a point in drug abuse where the choice ends. Chronic drug use changes the way the brain works. It triggers the reward center in the brain – that is what makes drug use so appealing. Over time, the brain will not create that same feeling of pleasure without the drug. In fact, it will demand more and more of the chemical to feel any effect at all. That dependence on a drug to feel normal is an addiction.

What is a Comorbid Condition?

A comorbid condition means there is another medical problem contributing to the addiction. For addicts, this comorbid condition often fuels the drug use. The mental illness makes this person vulnerable to drug addiction.
  • Clinical depression
  • Bipolar mood disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Borderline personality disorder
This is just a few of the mental health problems often associated with drug abuse.

What is the Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction?

male and female hand holding each otherDrug use may be an attempt to mask the symptoms of a mental condition and just feel normal for a while. Someone with a subclinical mental disorder may not even realize it exists. There is an underlying sadness they just can’t quite explain. Using drugs makes that sadness go away for a few hours. Schizophrenics often hear voices, but drug use quiets them. For some people, taking a drug increases the symptoms of the comorbid condition. For example, you might experience psychosis while on a drug even if you don’t have those symptoms regularly. There is a biological component as well. Many of the same factors that put a person at risk for addiction may be responsible for the mental illness, such as family history or trauma.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

It is critical to treat the whole person when developing a care plan and that means dealing with any coexisting mental problems. As part of the assessment for treatment, medical professionals will look for comorbid conditions that may exist alongside the addiction. This is known as a dual diagnosis. By treating both problems at once, the counselors increase the odds of success and lower the risk of relapse. If the mental illness is the trigger for the drug use, not treating it means this person will have the same need to fill once they leave treatment. By developing a customized plan that manages both illnesses, the treatment eliminates that need. Not every person who gets addicted has a mental illness, but there's a high probability that they do. The goal of addiction treatment is to teach the patient to live a better life through sobriety – that includes creating positive mental health outcomes.
Resources:
  1. "Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition)," National Institute on Drug Abuse, December 2012, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment/frequently-asked-questions/how-do-other-mental-disorders-coexisting-drug-add
  2. "What Is Addiction?," National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://easyread.drugabuse.gov/what-is-addiction.php
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