Substance Abuse and Mental Illness: Does
one Lead to the Other?

The Causes of Substance Abuse

The causes of substance abuse are complex, but those who struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs commonly struggle with their mental health as well. Often substance abuse can interact with mental illness, each making the other worse.

Conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia are far more prevalent in those with substance use disorders than in the general population. Mental health disorders that occur alongside addiction are known as dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring disorders can make substance use disorders more difficult to manage, and vice versa. When seeking care for alcohol or drug addiction, it’s essential to attend a treatment center that offers integrated care for substance abuse and mental illness.

The causes of substance abuse can vary from person to person, and no one really knows what precisely causes one person to start using and become addicted, while another person in similar circumstances either never feels the need to try drugs or alcohol, or experiments but is able to quit. Research indicates there are many factors that can predispose someone to addiction – genetics, personality traits, life experiences, trauma, and environmental causes, such as the availability of alcohol and drugs, poverty, difficult family conditions and peer influence.

Can Mental Illness Cause Drug Abuse?

Research has shown a very strong association between pre-existing mental illness and substance abuse. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one-third of people who abuse alcohol and more than half of those addicted to drugs also have at least one serious mental illness. Of those diagnosed with a mental illness, about one in three also abuse either alcohol or drugs.

A person experiencing mental illness may turn to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to alleviate his or her symptoms. For example, an individual feeling depressed and sad may try any number of drugs or alcohol to dull their feelings. Similarly, a person who has gone through trauma may drink or use drugs to forget painful memories or relieve the physical symptoms of PTSD. Someone with anxiety may also feel the need to try alcohol and drugs to allow them to function in social situations.

One study found that 26% of people experiencing psychotic symptoms due to schizophrenia use street drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamine or cannabis. A different study found that the reasons people gave for using drugs was to alleviate feelings of hopelessness and anxiety related to hearing voices.

While drugs and alcohol can cause a temporary feeling of euphoria, emotional numbness or increased confidence, all studies that look at outcomes show that people with mental health problems who abuse drugs and alcohol tend to fare worse than those who don’t. Over time, it takes more and more of a substance to produce a similar effect. And as the dependency and addiction progresses, the physical, mental and emotional damage caused by substance use gradually chips away at a person’s health, thinking, decision-making and relationships.

Other Ways Substance Abuse Affects Mental Illness

Substance use and mental illness can directly interact, each making the other worse.

While substance abuse may not have initially caused the depression, bipolar or anxiety disorder, the use of substances can lead to an increase in symptoms, such as more severe depression or more psychotic episodes. People may also feel shame and remorse about their behavior when under the influence of drugs or alcohol, causing damage to their sense of self-esteem, self-worth and capableness. Problems at work and within families resulting from alcohol and drug abuse can lead to more stress, which in turn, fuels the cycle of substance use.

What Causes Mental Illness?

Like substance abuse, the causes of mental illness are also highly complex. Mental illness typically doesn’t have a single cause. Usually, there are multiple contributing factors, including genetic, biological, psychological and environmental causes.

Mental illness may run in families, which suggests that some amount of the susceptibility lies in genetics. Most likely, it’s not one particular gene that’s the cause, but multiple genes interacting with environmental causes such as stress, abuse or trauma. Other evidence suggests that damage or trauma to the brain before birth, infections in early childhood, exposure to toxins, and brain injuries can predispose people to developing mental illness.

Another cause of mental illness is long-term substance abuse, including alcohol and drugs. Anxiety, depression and paranoia are all linked to various substances.

Psychological and environmental factors that may
contribute to mental illness include:

  • Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child, such as
    emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
  • The loss of a parent in childhood.
  • Neglect or a chaotic family life.
  • Poor social skills, difficulty forming meaningful relationships,
  • Death or divorce.
  • A chaotic or dysfunctional family life.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Problems with anxiety or anger.
  • Substance abuse, by the individual or their parents

Can Drug AbusE Cause Mental Illness?

It’s well known that drugs can mask mental illness, and that people may use alcohol and drugs in an attempt to relieve the symptoms of conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD and schizophrenia.

Research also shows that substance use can actually cause mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are nine specific mental health conditions induced by substance use. The symptoms of substance-induced disorders are distinct from co-occurring mental health disorders, in that substance-induced disorders are a direct result of substance use.

  • Delirium – Delirium is a state of confusion and altered perceptions. People experiencing delirium may seem angryand agitated, and have scattered thoughts and a marked change in their personality.
  • Psychosis – As with delirium, people with psychosis may be jittery, are difficult to control, and very difficult to reasonwith. Hallucinations and angry or violent outbursts may occur.
  • Hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder – This condition is rare but can occur after the long-term use of drugssuch as LSD. Sometimes described as flashbacks to the earlier use of hallucinogenic substances, the disorder is marked by sensory disturbances such as streaks of color, halos of light or floating objects in the field of vision.
  • Persisting amnestic disorder – Persisting amnestic disorder is a memory problem that can be a result of chronicalcohol dependence or drug use. The disorder, which can be mild or severe, occurs when portions of the brain involved with creating and recalling memories are damaged due to substance use.
  • Persisting dementia – This disorder encompasses memory problems, as well as problems learning new informationand paying attention.
  • Anxiety disorder – In addition to anxiety, this condition may include panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive symptomsand phobias. These symptoms can occur when an individual is under the influence of drugs or may appear during withdrawal.
  • Mood disorder – Separate from mood disorders such as depression that were present before the individual startedusing substances, substance-induced mood disorder is the onset of symptoms in the context of drug use or withdrawal.
  • Sexual dysfunction – Prescription drug abuse may cause sexual dysfunction, including physical impairment and alack of interest.
  • Sleep disorder – Insomnia and sleep difficulties are very common in people who use drugs or who have recentlystopped drinking or using drugs. Alcohol, amphetamines, opioids, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine can all cause sleep disruptions.

Treating Dual Disorders at Bluff Plantation

No matter whether the mental illness or the substance abuse came first, it’s essential to treat all conditions related to substance use and mental illness simultaneously. Bluff Plantation takes a comprehensive approach that focuses on healing the body and brain, managing co-occurring mental health conditions through medications and therapy, and developing healthy routines, coping skills, a strong sober support system and relapse avoidance strategies.

By targeting all of the contributors to substance use and ensuring mental health problems are thoroughly assessed and treated by psychiatrists, addiction medicine physicians and licensed therapists, Bluff Plantation helps men and women build a strong foundation for lasting recovery.

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