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The Connection Between Mental Health Disorders and Addiction

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Research from the past ten years shows that almost half of all people getting treated for prescription painkiller abuse have some kind of mental health diagnosis. In particular, young people tend to fall into drug abuse due to stressors common around that time and fluctuating hormones. 

But how exactly are mental health disorders and substance addiction connected? Do mental health problems cause substance abuse, or is it the other way around?

Here’s some important information about the link between mental health and drug and alcohol addiction.

How Mental Health Disorders Affect Addiction

First, it’s important to understand how mental health disorders may create addictive reactions and personalities. After all, not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic. A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that individuals with mental illness are two to four times more likely to struggle with addiction than the general population.

Mental health disorders may make someone more prone to addictive behaviors. Depression and anxiety are two major factors that may lead to substance abuse. Additionally, it may be more difficult for someone to stop an addiction when they struggle to achieve emotional equilibrium.

More Susceptible to Addictive Behaviors

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that individuals with untreated mental illness are more likely to experience a relapse in their addiction treatment. Certain mental health issues make people more likely to engage in addictive behaviors. For example, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to relieve their stress. It’s common to find PTSD paired with alcoholism, making it much more challenging to treat. 

Borderline Personality Disorder is another mental health disorder known for addictions. Addiction is one of the criteria that can lead to a BPD diagnosis. 

Depression and Anxiety Encouraging an Escape

Individuals who suffer from constant depression and anxiety may also turn to substance abuse as a way to dull or escape their emotions.

“Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that initially can produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria, but with repeated use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and other serious health problems.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. Available at: [Accessed 7 Mar. 2023].

Alcohol can make you feel less relaxed and more confident. It also can be a way to loosen yourself up for social situations. However, those feelings may quickly sour, and continuous heavy drinking could eventually take a toll on your body and liver. 

The same goes for recreational drugs that offer a high feeling. It’s nice to escape your feelings, but that feeling eventually ends. You may need to constantly chase that high, which could negatively affect your health and bank account. 

Difficulty Regulating Emotions or Dependence

It’s not uncommon for people with mental health issues to struggle with regulating their fluctuating emotions. Neurotypical people may be able to de-stress by jogging or listening to music. However, depression may last for long periods without an end in sight. 

When you struggle to manage your feelings, it’s easy to turn to some substance to improve your mood. 

How Addiction Affects Mental Health Disorders

Substance abuse has been shown to have a profound negative impact on an individual’s mental health. Research has demonstrated that excessive alcohol or opioid use can exacerbate symptoms of depression and negatively affect the management of pre-existing mental health conditions.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that individuals with addiction are at a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and other co-occurring mental health disorders. This highlights the importance of addressing substance abuse in individuals with mental health disorders, as it can have a detrimental effect on their overall well-being.

Changes in Your Brain Chemistry

Regular drug use or abuse can lead to imbalances in the brain’s natural chemistry, as highlighted by studies such as “Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction” (Volkow et al., 2016). Drugs of abuse can cause a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine, leading to addiction (Volkow et al., 2016).

Chronic drug exposure can also result in decreased dopamine release and increased opioid peptide release, leading to hedonic homeostatic dysregulation (Koob & Le Moal, 1997). These changes can cause severe withdrawal symptoms when the individual is not actively using drugs, which can drive them to use them excessively again (Volkow et al., 2016; Koob & Le Moal, 1997).

May Create Negative Feelings

Suffering from addiction, or even the process of recovering from it, may create a lot of negative feelings that could make other mental health disorders worse. 

For example, you may feel you can’t date due to your recovery. This could lead to isolation that exacerbates your feelings of loneliness. 

Using certain medications can result in more severe emotional fluctuations. Trying to stop your addiction could only worsen things until you’ve worked through any withdrawal symptoms. 

You Never Learn Proper Coping Mechanisms

One of the most significant issues with substance abuse is that it is often used as an alternative to therapy or other healthy behaviors like real self-care. A drug of choice may provide immediate relief. However, that relief usually does not last, and the drug must be utilized constantly with possibly diminishing results. 

Factors That Affect Both Mental Health and Addiction

Many overlapping factors can result in substance abuse, mental illness, or both. These include genetic vulnerabilities, environmental influences, and stress. 

Some individuals are more vulnerable to both substance abuse and mental health disorders. They may have more addictive personalities or unbalanced brain chemistry. 

Others develop these unhealthy habits due to their environment. A negative environment could lead to more stress and the pursuit of ways to cope with that stress. Some individuals have suffered severe trauma or adverse childhood experiences that continue to affect them into adulthood. 

While treating these two disorders simultaneously is difficult, it’s not impossible. It’s possible to acquire a dual diagnosis. 

A dual diagnosis is someone with both a mental disorder and a substance problem. Treating both of these issues may require behavioral therapies and prescribed medication.

Support groups can also be a way to get tips and share experiences. You can also get support from mentors who can help you heal.

Treat Mental Health Better

Every person’s path to recovery is different. However, it’s important to understand how mental health disorders and addiction influence one another. You may find certain methodologies apply to multiple therapeutic areas.

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