Addiction and Mental Health: What's the Connection?
Addiction and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders are often interlinked. When these conditions co-occur, treatment is more complex and sustained recovery is more of a challenge.
Those that suffer from dual diagnosis (addiction and one or more mental health illnesses) will know all too well that community treatment is often disjointed with a lack of continuity. Yo-yoing between mental health services and drug and alcohol services, when you are suffering, can at best be frustrating and at worst impossible.
In this article on mental health and addiction, we deep dive into the connection between the two and look at the reasons why they are frequently treated separately as opposed to simultaneously. We further look at those already in recovery from addiction who may be struggling with their mental health, the obstacles and risks that this can present, and who to reach out to for help.
Which Came First?
Those with a preexisting mental health disorder are predisposed to self-medicating with substances if they do not receive the correct treatment for their illness.
The majority of people suffering from addiction start off using substances during their youth. Additionally, as many as 50% of mental health illnesses begin by the age of 14, with 3/4 developing by the age of 24 (1) This shows a clear connection between addiction and mental health, seeing as most people who develop addiction start abusing substances during their teenage years.
The problem with substance abuse is that it can mask the signs of a mental health disorder. Additionally, many mental health illnesses are not diagnosed or treated when substance use is present.
To further complicate a correct diagnosis of a mental health illness, substance abuse can perpetuate or trigger the onset of common disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and the like.
The sad fact is that many teenagers have mental health disorders that go undiagnosed and untreated. Why is this?
Globally, an estimated 1 in 7 (14%) 10-19 year-olds experience mental health conditions (2), yet these remain largely undiagnosed and untreated. Is it any wonder then, that when alcohol or a substance come into the equation, providing temporary symptom relief, a young person will continue down the path of substance abuse?
Adolescents with mental health conditions are far less likely to be diagnosed due to a number of reasons, including:
- Lack of personal understanding of mental health illnesses
- Parents attributing the signs of mental health to hormones or behavioural issues
- Stigma (preventing adolescents from seeking treatment)
- Peer pressure (wanting to be like others and be accepted)
- Lack of education about the signs of mental health disorders (in caregivers, teachers and in adolescents)
- Lack of intervention unless a crisis occurs
Adolescents with mental health conditions are prone to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma, educational challenges, risk-taking behaviour (including taking drugs and alcohol), physical ill-health and violations of human rights.
Studies on Adolescents with co-occurring addiction and mental health
Studies have indicated that a large proportion of those with Substance Use Disorders (SUD) also have mental health disorders and vice versa. Although there is a lack of research on co-occurrence among youth, evidence suggests that adolescents with SUD are highly likely to experience mental illness. In fact, more than 60 percent of adolescents in community-based drug and alcohol treatment programmes have been diagnosed with another mental illness (3)
Teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. This is because their brains continue to develop until the age of 25. Early drug and alcohol use is a known factor for developing an addiction. This is one of the many complex reasons why teenagers are more predisposed to addiction and mental health illnesses.
Additionally, this age range is likelier to abuse drugs and alcohol through risk-taking behaviours. This is largely due to key areas of the brain that control impulse, emotional regulation, judgement and decision-making still being immature. Add to this a teenager that has an undiagnosed mental health condition and their risk of engaging in substance use is further increased.
Why mental health and substance use disorders are treated separately
Due to the effects of substance use disorders such as abuse and addiction, a person who suffers frequently presents with mental health symptoms. This is because frequent abuse of substances such as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine etc causes disruptions in the brain's chemistry. These disruptions can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression and sometimes psychosis.
In cases where a substance use disorder has caused the onset of mental health illness symptoms, ceasing the use of the substance is often effective in restoring normal brain chemistry. In many instances, when substance use has been discontinued, mental health symptoms will either significantly reduce or disappear entirely.
On the other hand, where a mental health illness has contributed to the engagement of substance abuse, the condition will remain once substances have been stopped. When this happens a correct diagnosis can be made and treatment can commence.
The cessation of substances is the first step to a correct mental health diagnosis. A person will then need a period of readjustment, where their brain recalibrates to being without substances before returning to baseline.
Any treatment for mental health that commences before substance abuse has ceased is also likely to be ineffective. This is due to the detrimental effects of drug and alcohol abuse on the brain and body. A person's brain cannot sufficiently engage with therapies whilst under the influence. Drugs and alcohol also counteract the effects of medications such as antidepressants. For these reasons, a substance use disorder needs to be treated first.
Suffering in addiction recovery from mental health
There is no doubt that people who have an addiction are likelier to suffer from their mental health. Addiction is a chronic illness that causes lasting changes to the brain's pathways and reward system.
For those without co-occurring mental health conditions, the path of addiction recovery is somewhat easier than for those with. Additionally, some addiction treatment programmes and communities can be self-stigmatising.
Mental health illnesses stop a person from living to their full potential. They also directly impact their quality of life. A person with an untreated mental health condition in addiction recovery may well feel like they are failing in recovery. The truth is, this is not their fault or something they can change without the correct professional help.
If you are in addiction recovery and suffering from signs of mental health illness, we urge you to seek professional help from our Hub of Hope. The correct treatment and support can vastly increase your quality of life and reduce your chances of relapsing back into addiction.
One community for all in recovery
Recoverlution is passionate about reducing the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health. We have created a community that welcomes anyone affected by addiction. Whether you are sober curious or already in a recovery programme, you are welcome to join for free and make use of our platform.
We combine community, knowledge and wellness within one safe space. Our hope is to connect anyone seeking support with like-minded others and with professional services.
Our community offers meetings from different mutual aid support programmes, as we recognise different programmes work for different people. We also offer an abundance of professional help and knowledge on improving mental health during your recovery journey
- Warning signs of mental health illness: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/warning-signs-of-mental-illness
- Mental health of adolescents: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
- Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness