Understanding Mental Health and the Connection to Addiction

Mental health means more than the absence of a mental illness. As the World Health Organization puts it, mental health is a state of wellbeing in which people can cope with life’s stresses, strive to meet goals, make a contribution to the community, and reach personal potential. It is an all-around state of wellness that starts in the mind.

Unfortunately, this ideal state might be somewhat rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 17 percent of adults are in an optimal state of mental health in any given year. Everyone else is living somewhere else on the mental health spectrum.

The risk of poor mental health grows with each hit of drugs a person takes. When an addiction and a mental illness go hand in hand, they are known as co-occurring disorders. That is not at all uncommon in people who use and abuse drugs.

Understanding Mental Illness

graph shows 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental health issue in any given yearA mental illness is defined by thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or opinions that are considered somehow outside of the normal realm of human experience. People with a mental illness may seem totally normal and functional on the outside, but the thoughts and feelings they harbor on the inside set them apart from others.

Mental illnesses are strikingly common. In fact, one in five adults experiences a mental health issue in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Sometimes, genetic influence plays a role in the development of a mental illness. For people like this, some types of mental illness seems to “run in the family,” and it’s often passed down from a parent to a child or from a grandparent to a grandchild. When symptoms appear, other family members might be able to spot the changes right away, and they might be able to identify where the changes come from. In this family, mental illness is familiar.

Sometimes, too, an environmental trigger spurs the genes, and that interplay between genes and the environment causes the eruption of mental illness. A person like this might be vulnerable to a mental illness, but it might not appear until the person also deals with:

  • A personally significant loss, such as the death of a loved one
  • A stressful event, such as a war episode or domestic violence
  • Chemical alterations, such as drug use
  • Physical changes, such as exhaustion or malnourishment

For people like this, the mental illness comes about due to both factors working together. Without the genes or the trigger, the mental illness might never appear.

Just as mental illnesses can come about due to different triggers and different genes, each mental illness comes with its own unique set of symptoms. There are, however, some universally recognized signs of mental health disorders, and they could apply to almost any disease out there. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, those signs include:

  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Low or no energy
  • Need for solitude, demonstrated by withdrawing from social activities
  • Expressions of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Yelling or fighting
  • Mood swings
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to handle day-to-day tasks
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Persistent worries

graph shows about 26% of the adult population in the united states has depressionsSomeone showing these signs is likely to be locked in a struggle with mental illness. Some mental illnesses are more common than others. For example, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders experienced by people in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about 26 percent of the adult population in the United States has depression. That means people with a mental illness are very likely to experience depression, but almost any mental illness could come to the fore.

A formal diagnosis by a doctor is the only way to get to the root of a mental illness. Families should be able to see the signs and understand what to do if they appear, but they will need the help of a doctor in order to determine what the illness is and how it should best be treated.

Understanding Addiction

mental health and the connection to addiction

Technically, an addiction is considered a form of mental illness. People who have addictions struggle to handle the demands of everyday life, and they cannot reach their full potential due to the damage the addiction causes. When an addiction is in play, a mental health diagnosis certainly applies.

But addictions can also form independently of mental illnesses. And some addictions can mask or even mimic the symptoms seen in people with mental illnesses. So it pays for families to know how addictions develop and what they look like. That way, these families will be prepared to spring into action when an addiction appears in the person they love.

An addiction is characterized by a physical and mental dependence on a substance of abuse.

An addiction develops when a person makes a choice to use a drug of some kind. But that drug use causes chemical changes deep inside the brain that make choosing sobriety very difficult. These people may not want to keep using drugs. In fact, they might be willing to do almost anything to make the drug use stop, but their brain cells continue to call out for drugs. Those calls come from deep regions of the brain that are impossible to overcome. In time, people like this lose the ability to say “no” to drugs. Their brain cells need drugs.

When an addiction is in play, the signs and symptoms the person exhibits can be very similar to those seen in people with a mental illness. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, common addiction signs include:

  • Skipping work or school
  • Picking fights
  • Illegal acts
  • Secrecy
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Personality shifts
  • Mood swings
  • Anger
  • Lack of motivation
  • Hyperactivity
  • Unexplained giddiness
  • Fearfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
Watching for these signs could help families to spot the early signs of an addiction. Looking for paraphernalia may also help. People who abuse drugs often need all sorts of tools in order to take their doses. Pipes, lighters, spoons, matches, and even mirrors might be part of a drug-user’s toolkit. Seeing those signs, in conjunction with the behavioral changes, could indicate when an addiction is in play.

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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.

Finding Relief

Treating one issue while leaving the other in place rarely results in real healing. That’s because the issue that has not been addressed can work as a prompt that leads to a relapse. For example, someone with alcoholism and depression who gets treatment for alcoholism only might still be very depressed. That person may not be able to handle everyday life, and the person may be unable to find relief. That sad feeling can work like a prompt to drink again, and in time, that person might return to full-blown alcoholism.

screening process for co-occurring disorders and addiction

Addictions and mental illnesses often go together. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says people with some mental illnesses are about twice as likely to have a drug use disorder, when compared to the general population. As a result, many drug abuse treatment providers are aware of how the two conditions intermingle. They are capable of providing therapies that can help.

The treatment process typically begins with screening. Here, providers attempt to determine:

  • What drugs the person has been using
  • How long the drug abuse has been going on
  • What mental health symptoms the person has been experiencing
  • Which mental health symptoms came before the drug use
  • Which mental health symptoms came after the drug use
  • The severity of the symptoms
Interviews, blood tests, urine tests, physical exams, and more might be part of this comprehensive testing program. With those results, providers often have a good idea of the overall scope of the problems the person faces. They can use that information to plan a path to wellness.

Typically, that path involves a combination of therapy and medications. The medications, which might be used to balance brain chemistry in people who have conditions like schizophrenia or depression, could help people to focus on their therapy. It’s the therapy portion of treatment that plays the largest role in recovery success.

healthy life behaviors that leave little room for drug use or mental illness dysfunction

In therapy for co-occurring conditions, people work to understand the triggers that prompt them to either lean on drugs or resort to unhealthy ways of thinking. Then, people work to change those behaviors, so they will have healthier lives in the future.

Often, the new behaviors involve creating a healthy life that leaves little room for drug use or mental illness dysfunction. A person like this:

  • Eats properly, on a regular schedule
  • Gets adequate sleep
  • Participates in regular exercise
  • Has social connections that aren’t built around drugs
  • Has creative outlets
  • Uses meditation, exercise, reading, or visualization to deal with stress and anxiety

These behaviors can be taught in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that 12-16 weeks of this therapy is often enough to influence large behavior changes. Oftentimes, a comprehensive addiction treatment program takes longer to complete, starting with inpatient treatment, progressing to outpatient care, and finally to a complete aftercare program.

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Finding Help

Addictions complicated by mental illnesses can seem hard to treat and overcome, but therapy delivered by a trained professional can make real recovery possible. It’s imperative that treatment addresses all co-occurring disorders, ensuring the best chances at a complete recovery that focuses on the entire person, not just one area of dysfunction. The sooner that help is delivered, the better.

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