Professionals have known for years that there is a strong connection between addiction and mental health, as it is common for them to occur together (often referred to comorbidity). But, the question then becomes – why do these two disorders seem to coexist? And, which one came first?
Often times, it is thought that individuals with a mental health diagnosis have used a substance of choice to deal with the symptoms of mental disorder. However, others tend to be of the thought school that years of abusing a substance can cause changes within the brain – and lead to a mental health diagnosis.
We are going to explore why addiction and mental health are two sides of the same coin.
Most Common Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders
While it is possible for someone with any mental health disorder to have a co-existing substance abuse problem, there are a few that tend to occur more frequently amongst those individuals who find themselves being dually diagnosed. For example:
- Depression (common symptoms are feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in things once enjoyed, changes in sleep patterns and eating habits, lack of energy, feelings of anger or guilt, and difficulty concentrating.) Many people who suffer from depression try to mask these symptoms with the use of substances.
- Anxiety (common symptoms are excessive worry, irritability, restlessness, nervousness, increased heart rate, difficulty sleeping and focusing.) Alcohol and other substances are often used to counteract these feelings. Most sufferers are looking for something to help them relax.
- Bipolar Disorder (common symptoms are alternating manic and depressive moods, impulsivity, aggression, hyperactivity, racing thoughts, and impaired judgment.) Those who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or suffer its effects, usually seek out a substance to balance the racing, hyper mood.
- Schizophrenia (this is a psychotic disorder in which there are episodes of hallucinations, delusions, disorganized speech, disorganized or catatonic behavior, and/or a lack of emotions.) The feelings of this disorder are often hard to handle so, to cope, these individuals often turn to various substances to counter the effects.
Genetics of Mental Health Disorders
Genetics always plays a part in mental health disorders and, often, with addictive behaviors. While the cause is not always all due to genetics, it does contribute. Those individuals who are born into a family in which one or both of the biological parents or grandparents have a problem with substance abuse and addiction will find themselves at a greater risk for developing the same behavior.
Genes are important and when one is missing or distorted, there is a lapse in the genetic makeup that leads to optimal functioning.
Chemical Imbalances in the Brain
Your brain determines the way you feel, the way you react to certain situations, and how your overall body processes and organs function. However, if your brain fails to release the chemicals it needs to perform at its best, there will be consequences. For example, serotonin is believed to regulate your mood, varied social behaviors, as well as appetition and digestion. So, what happens when your body becomes deficient in its production of serotonin? Your moods may come irregular and your brain processes may be thrown off – leaving you with the symptoms of a mental disorder.
Many medications are used to regulate these brain chemicals, but for those who don’t seek medical attention may often find themselves attempting to self-medicate with the use of a substance.
Which Comes First: Addiction or Mental Illness?
If both drug addiction and mental illness go hand in hand for some individuals – which came first? It is important to note that one does not cause the other. In other words, it is not as if becoming an addict is an effect of mental illness, per se. However, there is a connection – in both ways.
- Some individuals suffer the symptoms of mental illness, such as those listed above, and may never reach out to seek medical assistance. Without the proper diagnosis and treatment of a mental health disorder, the individual may begin attempting to calm the symptoms by using alcohol or their own drug of choice.
- While drug addiction does not necessarily cause a mental disorder, it may have some bearing on creating new symptoms or sparking the onset of the disorder. Just as you may be genetically predisposed to addiction, you may be predisposed to mental illness as well. The overuse of substances can be what the body needed to get started.
It is important to note that if you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder and have been prescribed medication, using or abusing drugs and alcohol may have a highly negative effect on your body due to the prescribed medication.
Why Co-Occurring Disorders Treatment Is Tricky
When it comes to comorbidity, treatment can be tricky. After all, a doctor would never treat a patient for one condition alone if he or she presented with a multitude of ailments. Instead, the doctor would look at all the symptoms and dysfunctions and come up with a treatment plan, depending on if any of the ailments could potentially be related.
The same is true for those who are suffering from mental illness and addiction. If you only treat one, you are not healing or helping the client. Instead, you will want to attack both the addiction and the mental health. Choose a combination of drug treatment and rehabilitation with behavioral therapy (or the method of choice by the particular therapist in your specific situation).
No one truly knows why addiction and mental health are two sides of the same coin. They just are. Perhaps it is a mix of genetics and the environment, or maybe it is just faulty wiring. Just as we may never know the answer to the old adage, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?,” we may never know which came first – the addiction or the mental health disorder. All we can do going forward is to recognize the extent of the client’s issue and address both together.