The combination of addiction and another mental disorder, commonly referred to as a “co-occurring disorder,” is more prevalent than one might think. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), nearly 8 million Americans were diagnosed with co-occurring disorders in 2014 alone.
Education is the first step toward helping yourself or a family member deal with mental health issues, especially when they might co-occur with drug or alcohol addiction.
Mental Health and Addiction FAQ
Before getting into the types of mental health disorders that commonly co-occur with substance abuse, let’s take a look at three frequently asked questions about mental illness. Click on any of the following questions to see our answer.
Is substance abuse really a mental health problem?
It can be hard for some to wrap their heads around addiction being a mental illness. That’s not surprising considering how much misinformation about addiction is spread by word of mouth or online. In reality, the medical community has recognized addiction as a mental illness based on the way that the disorder changes how the brain works.
The compulsions that occur after these chemical changes are made cannot be controlled with willpower alone. That’s why effective, personalized treatment for addiction (and any parallel mental health disorders) is so important. The individual is unlikely to heal completely without this support.
What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?
The early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness can be very subtle. If you or a loved one has a family history of mental illness, your risk for developing a mental health disorder is greater.
The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the following symptoms as early signs of mental illness:
Inability to perform at work or school
Greater sensitivity to light, noise and audio
Desire to withdraw from others
Intense anxiety or nervousness
Unpredictable mood swings
How does addiction affect mental health?
Substance use disorders have a “the chicken vs. the egg” type of relationship with other mental disorders. The symptoms of untreated addiction can often evolve into a separate mental health disorder. On the other hand, the symptoms of a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder may encourage a person to abuse drugs or alcohol.
More important than figuring out which came first is identifying how to treat both illnesses. Attempting to treat each disorder individually is ineffective. Untreated symptoms from one disorder tend to make the other illness harder to address.
Individuals who seek treatment for both disorders at the same time experience more success. When looking for help for both an addiction problem and a mental health disorder, seek out a program that offers “dual diagnosis treatment.”
There’s a big difference between occasional feelings of sadness, emptiness and loneliness and a full-blown depressive disorder. We’re here to clear the confusion and help you assess your situation.
We’ve put together a 14-question assessment that you can take right now to determine if the depressed feelings you’re experiencing right now are a cause for concern, or if they will likely pass without the need for clinical intervention.
Start the assessment now to see if you should seek help for depression.
“I wish that people could understand that the brain is the most important organ in your body.
Just because you can’t see it like you could see a broken bone doesn’t mean it’s not as detrimental and devastating to a family or an individual.”
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Co-occurring disorders, also referred to as dual diagnosis, describe when a person is struggling with more than one mental disorder at the same time. It is especially common among people who suffer from addiction. Several studies have found that more than 50 people of people struggling with addiction are also suffering from another mental disorder. Due to the extensive number of mental disorders, there are countless combinations of co-occurring disorders.
Click on any of the disorder names in order to learn more:
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems affecting the United States and the world today. It’s no surprise that this illness is made worse by other mental disorders.
Depression is prevalent in people with co-occurring disorders, especially those with addiction issues. People with depression are at the highest risk of developing an addiction of some kind. Studies have found that they are twice as likely to suffer from addiction as those who do not have depression.
Those who abuse heroin often cite depression as a major reason they started experimenting with powerful drugs. Likewise, those who can’t find health care may turn to heroin to manage their depression symptoms.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
ASPD is a mental illness characterized by lacking empathy for others, as well as the willingness to ignore the rights of others. This mental illness often occurs in people who are also struggling with alcoholism. Because alcohol lowers a person’s inhibitions, their antisocial tendencies may be easier to spot.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
GAD is characterized by racing thoughts, nagging feelings of doubt and high levels of restlessness. All of these are symptoms of cocaine abuse as well, so it makes sense that those with anxiety issues are more likely to abuse cocaine. Unfortunately, the side effects of cocaine are likely to make anxiety patients feel even stronger symptoms, leading them to more drug abuse.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD sets in following a horrific or very violent accident, injury or experience. Those who have been in war zones, for example, are at a high risk for developing the illness.
Unfortunately, a lack of treatment resources has led many PTSD suffers to self-medicate with alcohol and/or opioid medications. This approach does nothing to treat their trauma. Instead, it will only repress the feelings while the person is using.
Other Co-occurring Disorders Frequently Asked Questions
Likely due to the wide range of mental health disorders, we hear a litany of questions on these issues, especially as they relate to substance abuse. See our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about mental health and addiction concerns:
Is There a Link Between Alcoholism and Mental Illness?
Excessive alcohol consumption has a significant impact on brain chemistry. Alcohol is a depressant, and affects the part of the brain that is associated with inhibitions. The impact extends past that, however, to overall thoughts, feelings and actions.
Though alcohol lowers inhibitions and many use it to reduce stress, it can end up causing increased anxiety. After an extended time, heavy drinking changes the neurotransmitters in the brain that contribute to mental health.
Along with anxiety, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to depression. Alcohol reduces the amount of serotonin in the brain, which is a chemical that plays a significant part in regulating your mood.
Some begin drinking because they suffer from depression, while others begin suffering from depression because they drink heavily. There is a strong link between the two conditions.
Constantly being under the influence of alcohol will also inevitably affect your personal relationships – romantic, friendships and familial. Weakened relationships have the potential to increase one’s feelings of depression – and possibly anxiety.
Is There a Link Between PTSD and Addiction?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe mental disorder that can devastate one’s daily life. It commonly affects military veterans, especially those who saw combat. However, anyone who goes through a traumatic experience may develop this disorder, to varying degrees of severity. PTSD symptoms often involve:
Extreme outbursts of anger
The symptoms can occur at any time, usually in situations that remind the person of their trauma in some way. Many people will use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with the symptoms of their PTSD. Studies have shown that 52 percent of males with PTSD meet the criteria for alcohol abuse. Among women who struggle with alcohol abuse problems, 28 percent experience PTSD.
How PTSD Impacts the Brain
When someone experiences trauma, their brain increases the production of endorphins to deal with the event. The brain reduces the production after the event is over, leaving the person in a withdrawal state that leads to symptoms such as:
Alcohol serves the same purpose as the endorphins, helping the person feel normal without the trauma-induced endorphins. The positive effects, however, do not last.
How Do Mental Illness and Addiction Impact Brain Function?
Despite what some may believe, addiction is a brain disease, just like other mental illnesses. All brain diseases and mental disorders cause changes in the brain’s delicate chemistry. Addiction and mental illness involve many of the same parts of the brain and can have similar effects, including:
Increased dopamine activity
Impact on serotonin
Impact on reward pathways
Dopamine is known as the “feel-good hormone.” Increased dopamine equals stronger feelings of euphoria, pleasure, motivation and concentration. A dopamine shortage will have the opposite effects.
Serotonin is a chemical and neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood, appetite, memory, etc. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression.
Is My Anxiety Medication Addictive?
Many people use antianxiety medication to try to stabilize their emotional and mental states and to combat the severe impact of anxiety issues. However, recent research has revealed that some antianxiety medications function in a way similar to hard drugs, including having addictive properties.
Anxiety medications such as Valium impact the brain’s reward pathways and dopamine levels. Benzodiazepine drugs, the most prominent class of antianxiety medications, boost the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which increases the level of dopamine in the brain. People with higher levels of dopamine are more likely to struggle with addiction.
Can Mental Illness Be Treated Without Drugs?
Many of the people who turn to drugs make such a decision because they think it is the only way to cope with their mental illness. However, there are small, substance-free habits that can improve mental health. For example, getting more sleep can make a significant difference. Diet is another consideration that can change a person’s mental state.
In other words, improving sleeping and eating habits can help some people lessen the impact of their mental illness(es). Many medical experts believe that prescribing a medication can do more harm than good in the long run. Unless the disorder is severe, there’s a good chance you can address your mental health needs without the use of drugs – legal or illegal.
What Are Some Natural Ways I Can Improve My Mental Health?
Whether you are struggling with addiction or not, it is important to know several natural ways to improve your mental health. Some of the natural methods include:
Exercising and eating well
Setting aside time for more relaxation
Surrounding yourself with positive people
Getting rid of bad habits
Asking for help when you need it
Doing what makes you happy
Verbalizing your feelings and emotions more
Writing in a Journal
What Is the Best Treatment for Mental Health Issues and Addiction?
It can be difficult to treat both mental health and addiction issues together. Therefore, it is important to find a treatment team or specialist who has experience in working with both problems, because when they are addressed separately, outcomes will be stunted.
A combination of counseling and holistic therapy is the ideal course of treatment for co-occurring disorder sufferers. Such treatment may involve group and individual counseling sessions, yoga, meditation and many other therapeutic activities.
In short, search for a dual diagnosis treatment program. We can help guide your search for professional treatment, if you’d like.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
As mentioned earlier, finding proper treatment for co-occurring mental disorders is not easy. It takes a mix of medical, psychiatric and recovery experts to pinpoint the unique dual diagnosis treatment strategies that will work for each patient.
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