What Are The Long Term Mental Health Effects of Heroin?

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The long-term abuse of heroin wreaks havoc on every aspect of an addict’s life. It destroys relationships with loved ones, compromises your physical health and slowly eats away at your sense of self-respect and dignity.

However, there is another risk associated with heroin addiction that many addicts never fully realize. Discovering this hidden danger is a key step toward breaking the cycle of heroin abuse – and it may even save your life.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin on the Brain

Abusing heroin over a long period of time does serious damage to your brain. Once you’ve developed a tolerance to the pleasurable effects of heroin, it’ll take larger and larger doses just to feel anything at all. As your brain adjusts to having a constant flow of heroin, your dopamine receptors become less and less sensitive to the drug.

Eventually, your body stops producing enough dopamine on its own to function normally, which leads to problems like:

  • Poor thinking and reasoning skills
  • Impaired memory
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor emotional and behavioral regulation

However, once you quit using heroin, it is possible for your brain to repair some of this damage, mitigating the potential long-term effects.

The Link Between Heroin and Mental Health Problems

Long Term Mental Health Effects of HeroinWhile long-term heroin abuse itself does have a negative impact on mental health, the more serious risk that rarely gets addressed is that many people use heroin to cover up an existing mental illness.

Research shows that an estimated 17.5 million American adults – roughly 8 percent of the adult population – suffered from a serious mental health disorder in the past year. One in 4 of these adults also dealt with a dependence on drugs or alcohol at the same time.

Mental illness hurts, and conditions like depression, PTSD and anxiety can make your life a living hell. It should come as no surprise that many people suffering from mental illness will begin using drugs and alcohol to mask their pain. But self-medicating with heroin doesn’t make the problem go away; it just covers it up for a few hours at a time.

When you rely on the mental effects of heroin use to self-medicate a mental illness, you’re not just making the problem worse, you’re also robbing yourself of the opportunity to start working toward true recovery.

Common Heroin Co-Occurring Disorders

Research has linked the risk of self-medicating with heroin to a number of mental health disorders, including:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD develops after a person experiences a traumatic life event, such as rape, abuse or military combat. A person with PTSD continues to have overwhelming, disturbing thoughts and feelings associated with these experiences that persist long after the event has ended.

These intense feelings come in sudden waves known as “flashbacks,” which can be triggered by such mundane things as a loud noise or an unexpected touch.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by unwanted, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, along with the irrational and excessive need to perform specific ritual behaviors. Even though many people with OCD know that their thoughts and behaviors don’t make logical sense, they are often powerless to stop them.

Common warning signs of OCD include:

  • An irrational fear of germs and illness
  • Intrusive thoughts about taboo subjects like sex and violence
  • Compulsively checking to make sure a door is locked, a light is off, etc.
  • Feeling anxious when certain routines are not performed


People with schizophrenia experience a combination of disturbing delusions and hallucinations. To a schizophrenic, these delusions and hallucinations appear to be just as real as the actual world. In many cases, schizophrenics are completely unable to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary, which can lead illogical and destructive behaviors.

Because schizophrenia is a poorly understood and highly stigmatized mental illness, people suffering from the condition experience high levels of discrimination and social isolation.


Depression, unlike normal feelings of sadness, is a mental health disorder characterized by chronic feelings of hopelessness, lack of motivation and emotional numbness. People with depression may appear healthy to those around them, but when in private, a task as simple as getting out of bed in the morning can feel almost impossible.

It’s estimated that only 1 in 3 people suffering from depression ever seek professional treatment. When depression goes undiagnosed, many believe that they feel the way they do because they are worthless and lazy, which only worsens their symptoms.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is characterized by excessive and chronic worry that is disproportionate to one’s circumstances. People with GAD are unable to control their feelings of worry and frequently become obsessed with concerns about health, money, work, family, death, etc.

While feeling anxious can be healthy in certain situations, those with GAD often have a strong emotional response to even the smallest triggers. Typical symptoms of GAD include:

  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Memory impairment
  • Mood swings
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Poor concentration
  • Fear, confusion, and worry

Bipolar Disorder

Formerly referred to as “manic depression,” bipolar disorder is a mental disorder that causes sufferers to experience serious and dramatic mood swings. Those with bipolar disorder alternate between periods of mania (which is characterized by erratic and frantic thoughts and behaviors) and severe depression.

Because people suffering from bipolar disorder are commonly seen as erratic and unpredictable, it can be very difficult for them to maintain healthy relationships.

Treating Heroin Addiction at the Source

If you are trying to overcome an addiction to heroin without also receiving treatment for the symptoms of an underlying mental illness, you are wasting your time. Dual diagnosis heroin addiction treatment is the best way to make sure that when you get off heroin, you’re off it for good. Through dual diagnosis treatment, you’ll receive help for substance abuse and mental illness at the same time, which greatly reduces the risk of relapsing.

If you are serious about getting clean, it’s absolutely essential that you discover if an underlying mental illness drove you to heroin addiction in the first place. Countless addicts have realized that once they receive professional treatment for their mental illness, their desire to self-medicate with heroin slowly fades away on its own. Getting help for your mental illness can even ease the psychological symptoms of heroin detox, improving your chances of achieving lasting recovery.

See Our Heroin Addiction Fact Sheet

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