Why mental health disorders and substance use coexist

The numbers will not lie. Mental illness and addiction often overlap. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 9 million people suffer from the disease at the same time. However, only 7% of these people received treatment for these two diseases. Nearly 60% of people did not receive treatment at all.

Understand comorbidities

Comorbidities refer to two conditions, such as specific mental health disorders and substance use disorders, which often coexist. This means that many addicts also have potential mental health problems. Although neither of these two conditions actually lead to the other, they do often coexist at the same time. More importantly, one condition exacerbates the symptoms of another.

In order to better understand how comorbidities occur, it is necessary to realize that both are chronic brain diseases. In other words, when someone struggles with drug addiction, their brain will be permanently reconnected by the substance they abused. In turn, this will cause the brain to function differently than before. Just like diabetes or heart disease, addicted people must control their condition for the rest of their lives. This is not as simple as stopping drugs or alcohol. In many cases, this is simply impossible.

Similarly, changes in the brain due to drug abuse occur in the same brain areas affected by depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a high comorbidity rate between addiction and other mental illnesses. Although this connection is complex, some mental health issues increase the risk factors for drug abuse. This means that some people with mental illness will turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with their mental health problems.

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Why addiction and mental illness happen at the same time

Although the comorbidity rate between addiction and mental illness is high, it does not mean that one must cause the other-even if one occurs first. On the contrary, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are still many factors to consider. For example:

  • Drug abuse can cause one or more symptoms of another mental illness. For example, some marijuana users have an increased risk of mental illness.
  • Mental disorders can lead to drug or alcohol abuse because some people use drugs for self-treatment. For example, the nicotine in tobacco products sometimes reduces certain symptoms of schizophrenia and may improve cognitive ability.

There is also some evidence that addiction and mental illness are caused by underlying brain defects, genetic influences, and/or trauma suffered early in life. For example, it is estimated that 40% to 60% of people’s addiction can be attributed to genetics. There are also several regions in the human genome that are associated with increased risk of drug abuse and mental illness.

Another common factor between mental health problems and addiction is the age at which symptoms appear. In adolescence, people are still developing, maturing and growing. As a result, the brain undergoes major changes during adolescence. For example, teenagers are more likely to take risks and act impulsively. Although these behaviors are common in adolescents, they can affect the risk of addiction and other mental disorders.

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Finally, people who have been physically or emotionally traumatized have a much higher risk of substance use disorder. For veterans returning to the country, this connection is particularly worrying. In fact, one in five soldiers and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.

Some studies have shown that half of all veterans diagnosed with PTSD also have co-occurring drug abuse problems.

Why both conditions are difficult to diagnose

Sometimes it is difficult to diagnose concurrent diseases. One reason is that the symptoms are usually complex and the severity may vary. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to receive treatment for one disease while another disease remains untreated. Sometimes this happens because the symptoms are very similar or overlapping. In other words, both mental health problems and addictions may have similar biological, psychological, and social components.

Another reason for not diagnosing these two conditions may include insufficient training or screening. In any case, the consequences of undiagnosed, untreated, or untreated comorbid diseases may lead to a higher likelihood of homelessness, imprisonment, medical illness, or even suicide.

More importantly, people with mental health problems who abuse drugs or alcohol at the same time are at increased risk of impulsive or violent behavior, which may put them into legal difficulties. For them, achieving lasting sobriety is becoming more and more difficult.

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Treatment in the presence of comorbidities

Studies have shown that simultaneous treatment of diseases that occur at the same time is required. In fact, for the best results, it can be helpful for people with addiction and mental health problems to receive comprehensive treatment. Through comprehensive treatment, doctors and counselors can handle and treat these two diseases at the same time. In turn, this generally reduces treatment costs and creates better outcomes for patients.

More importantly, early detection and treatment of these two conditions can greatly improve people’s recovery and quality of life. However, it is important to note that people with both addiction and another mental illness usually have longer-lasting, more severe symptoms and resistant to treatment compared to patients with either disease alone. Therefore, staying awake can be very difficult for them.

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The correct diagnosis of addiction and mental health issues is critical to the success of patients. When this happens, their chances of recovery will increase. But need to improve the awareness of comorbidities in order for this to happen. Too many times, one of these conditions has not been diagnosed and treated. As awareness and treatment of coexisting diseases improve, this will help reduce the social stigma that makes people unwilling to receive the treatment they need.