Mental health disorders and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand. Both can frequently present with similar symptoms. It can be challenging to know if someone is struggling with a mental illness, a substance use issue, or a combination of both.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as “A health condition involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these).”
Addiction is defined as Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.
Both addiction and mental health disorders are known as “no-fault illnesses”. This means the individual did nothing to bring on the illness. It can be tempting for the individual, their friends, families, and loved ones to try and find a reason or cause to blame for the illness.
The truth is both conditions often involve brain chemistry.
Accepting that substance use disorder and mental health disorders are truly no-fault illnesses may help the individual living with the condition and those around them develop a more positive, healthy outlook.
Comorbidity is the existence of two independent health conditions that together impact the health of an individual.
Roughly 50% of people living with severe mental illnesses are also affected by substance abuse. And 37% of those with alcoholism and 53% of those with drug addiction also have at least one mental illness.
Substance use can cause changes in the structure of the brain similar to the changes that are present with illnesses like schizophrenia anxiety, bipolar, and mood disorders. When substance use happens before the onset of a mental health disorder, the addiction could be the catalyst behind the disorder.
As we mentioned above, drugs can change how the brain is wired. These changes may cause a predisposition to a number of mental health disorders.
Additionally, drug abuse can cause symptoms of mental illness. For example, marijuana use can be associated with psychosis.
The connection between mental illness and substance use isn’t just related to illegal drugs..43% of individuals who are being treated for addiction to prescription painkillers also have a mental health diagnosis or symptoms of a mental health disorder. Depression and anxiety are particularly common in these situations.
Children and teenagers use drugs and substances for reasons similar to adults. However, children and teenagers become addicted to drugs much quicker than adults. Connections in the adolescent brain are still developing and the adolescent brain has much more plasticity than an adult brain.
Many illicit substances affect the same regions of the brain that are impacted by mental health disorders such as ADHD.
Several studies confirm that untreated ADHD may lead to drug addiction later in life.
However, when it comes to treating ADHD, there is a catch-22.
Effectively treating ADHD in children often includes prescribing stimulants to reduce the side effects of ADHD. Prescribing these potentially addictive medications may set the table for an addiction to develop later in the child’s life.
The theory that many with mental illnesses turn to self-medication gained popularity in the early 1980s.
Self-medicating is exactly as it sounds, using substances without the guidance of a medical professional to ease physical or emotional pain or discomfort.
In the short term, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol provides relief. However, drugs and alcohol will typically cause symptoms of a mental illness to become worse over time.
While the theory of self-medication has definitely gained traction within the medical community, some argue that it may shield illegal drug users from the consequences of their decision to use illicit drugs.
Others argue self-medication allows those with mental health conditions to avoid dealing with the root of their challenges.
Establishing if you or someone you’re close to is self-medicating can be tricky. After all, not all self-medicating is done with drugs or alcohol. Not to mention, having a drink or two is perfectly acceptable. And, marijuana is now legal and socially acceptable in many areas.
Some individuals may self-medicate with food or shopping. Activities like these may seem harmless. But, they do come with consequences and can make difficult situations even more challenging.
So, how do you know if self-medicating has become an issue?
You must get to the real reason you are having a drink, eating some ice cream, or taking a pain pill.
Is it because you’re in the mood for a treat, your back hurts, or is it because you’re trying to change the way you feel? If you are trying to change the way you feel, you are likely self-medicating.
There are numerous indicators of addiction or mental illness, and many of the warning signs can be hard to spot. Here are just a few of the more common signs that may mean someone is living with an addiction or mental health disorder.
- Having urges to use the drug that prevent or override other thoughts
- Needing a larger amount over time to receive the same affect
- Spending more than you can afford just to get the drug
- Letting responsibilities and obligations slide.
- Withdrawing from activities with friends, family, or at work.
Warning signs of mental illness
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Struggling to sit still
- Racing thoughts and speech
- Large mood swings
- Changing eating habits
- Sleeping a lot or having low energy
- Struggling to relate to people or difficulty understanding others
Because of the wide variety and similar nature of symptoms it can be difficult to diagnose whether someone is dealing with addiction, and mental health issue, or a combination of both.
- Both addictions and mental illnesses are no-fault illnesses.
- Roughly 50% of those living with severe mental illnesses also live with some form of substance abuse.
- Substance use can change the structure of the brain similar to the changes commonly seen with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses.
- The adolescent brain can become addicted much more quickly than the adult brain.
- Self-medicating is common for those who live with a mental illness.
- There is a variety of warning signs for both mental illness and addiction.
- Many of the warning signs are similar.