This blog was updated July 27, 2021
For a person struggling with addiction, the main goal is likely to stop using drugs and alcohol. But for those also struggling with mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression, it is equally as important to address mental health as part of addiction treatment.
Among those with substance use disorders (SUDs), co-occurring disorders are common. In fact, 37 percent of those battling alcohol use disorder and 53 percent of those struggling with a drug use disorder also suffer from at least one serious mental health disorder.
A person’s experiences with mental health and SUDs tend to be cyclic rather than linear. These conditions exacerbate each other, and the cycle can be challenging to break. People suffering from a mental illness are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol, and vice-versa.
How Mental Health Issues Can Lead to Addiction
Those who struggle with mental health issues often use drugs or alcohol to deal with difficult emotions or temporarily numb themselves to them. Social pressures and other challenges that may arise in a person’s daily life can fuel their substance misuse, particularly if they already struggle with a mental illness. For example, a person with depression may cope by going to the bar and ordering drinks, and their alcohol consumption may escalate into a drinking problem.
Of course, drinking in response to stress is only a temporary “fix” — one that comes with dangerous consequences. Over time, individuals can become dependent on self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to make it through the day. Ultimately, self-medicating leads individuals to experience more intense anxiety and depression symptoms than before they started using drugs and alcohol.
How Addiction Can Trigger Mental Health Disorders
The reverse is also true: a person who uses substances can later experience the onset of depression, anxiety, PTSD, or another mental health condition. Drugs and alcohol alter brain chemistry; hallucinogens and amphetamines can even lead to symptoms of mania, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
Neurological changes can similarly cause someone with an SUD to develop depression. When a person struggles with addiction, the neurotransmitters in the brain become hijacked by substances. The brain is programmed for survival; specifically, the neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for motivation, which controls survival impulses. If a person is not motivated, they may neglect to eat, sleep, or carry out other activities necessary for survival. This lack of motivation can be a telltale sign of depression.
Researchers from the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs found that a person who uses drugs will experience a higher level of dopamine release than the brain can produce organically on its own. They note that methamphetamine in particular produces more than twenty times the amount of typical dopamine release in the brain, at 1,100 nanograms per deciliter. Over time, drug use triggers lower quantities of dopamine release, and users must take more and more of a drug to replicate the initial rush they experienced. When a person stops using altogether, they will feel less motivated and more susceptible to depression and other mental health concerns.
Mental health issues don’t just arise from changes in the brain; they are also caused by the high-risk situations that users often find themselves in. Addiction can cause individuals to experience legal problems, struggle at work or school, and hinder their relationships — all of which can leave them feeling depressed. PTSD is also common among those who use drugs and alcohol, as they are more likely to be assaulted or raped. For intravenous users, the risk of becoming infected with HIV is high; a positive diagnosis often leaves them filled with grief, desperation, and depression.
Finding Treatment: Addiction and Mental Health
Finding an addiction treatment program that addresses both the substance use disorder and the mental health disorder is crucial for true, long-lasting recovery. Biopsychosocial assessments are typically conducted in early addiction recovery to monitor for co-occurring disorders. A person suffering from depression and a SUD, for example, may benefit from psychotropic medications at first to better adjust to the early stages of sobriety.
Addiction programs that are equipped to handle psychiatric problems can provide the proper treatment plan, counseling, and aftercare planning, as well as help:
- Understand the nature of the depression or anxiety
- Identify and address triggers
- Better manage emotions
- Implement wellness therapies to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Motivate lifestyle changes
Treating mental health disorders and substance abuse at the same time is important, as both are so closely linked. One cannot be properly treated without addressing the other. So, when looking for the right addiction treatment, remember that recovery is about healing as a whole – in body and mind.