Seeing the Connections
While addictions and mental illnesses can look alike, they can also develop at the same time in the same person. People like this have co-occurring disorders in which the addiction is somehow augmented or enhanced by a mental illness. The two conditions are very much separate, but they have taken hold in the same person at the same time.
Researchers are not sure why addictions and mental illnesses seem to develop in tandem in this way. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that there are three scenarios that might explain it:
1. Addictive drugs spark mental illness symptoms. The person may not have experienced these symptoms prior to drug use, but after drug use, the symptoms are there and they persist. Here, the drugs seem to awaken a mental illness that is already somehow present but latent within the person.
2. Mental illnesses drive people to use drugs. For some people, addictive drugs seem to calm or quell the symptoms they feel due to the mental illness. When these people use drugs, they feel better. In time, they come to need drugs. Then, they have both an addiction and a mental illness.
3. Overlapping vulnerabilities make people prone to both addictions and mental illnesses. One does not cause the other, but since the person is vulnerable to both things, it is not surprising that both things appear.
An addiction and a mental illness could develop in tandem due to any one of these three influences. When an addiction and a mental illness are both in play in the same person, the problems that person faces could be enhanced. In the end, the person may have more difficulties than the person might have if just one problem had appeared alone.
In an article in Psych Central, researchers point to the difficulties that people who self-medicate with drugs might experience. These people use drugs in order to keep their mental illness symptoms in check. But when the drugs have worn off, the symptoms of mental illness are still very much in place. Without the suppression of drugs, these symptoms can be incredibly strong, and the rebound effect of those symptoms is often hard for people to handle. A typical cycle might look like this:
In each pass through the cycle, the symptoms of mental illness get a little bit stronger, and the doses of drugs people must take to feel the effects get a bit larger. In the end, people feel massively unwell, and they may take massive doses of drugs.