Substance Abuse & Addiction

Is Substance Abuse a Mental Health Disorder?

Although one might not think about substance abuse in the same way as depression or anxiety, it too is considered a mental health disorder because it causes changes in the brain. While substance abuse, dependency and addiction used to be viewed as separate disorders, now they all fall under the umbrella of substance use disorders. Drugs and alcohol interfere with the brain’s reward system as well as areas that control impulse, compulsion, decision-making and more.

The brain no longer responds to certain situations in the same way it would if substances were not present. Drugs and alcohol begin to take priority and overrun a person’s natural hierarchy of needs and desires. Substance abuse can occur on its own, or co-occur with other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, personality disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Comes First, Substance Abuse or Mental Health Problems?

It is not always easy or possible to determine which came first, substance abuse or mental health problems, or whether one lead to the other. Many times the two conditions have overlapping symptoms and risk factors. For instance, genetics play a role in risk of developing both substance use and mental health disorders. The combination of genetics and environmental factors may increase or decrease a person’s risk as well. Every person is different.

Substance abuse and mental health problems can occur independently of one another, or they may occur together. It all depends on the person and their individual situation. In some cases, the presence of mental health problems may contribute to a person’s decision to drink or use drugs as a way of self-medicating and trying to cope with symptoms. In other cases substance abuse can exacerbate feelings of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses because of how these substances interact with the brain.

Common Types of Substance Abuse

Drug Addiction

A common misconception about drug addiction is that it is a choice and a matter of willpower. While the initial decision to use drugs may have been a choice, by the time drug addiction develops, it is often out of the person’s control.

Alcoholism

A person’s pattern of drinking – combined with genetics and environmental factors – can put them at greater risk of developing alcoholism. This condition makes it harder for people to control the amount and frequency of their drinking despite negative consequences.

Statistics About Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Mental health disorders and substance abuse do not discriminate. They affect people of all ages, genders, races, classes, and abilities. Millions of people are affected every year, yet only a fraction of those who could benefit from professional help receive it. According to a 2014 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  • Approximately 43.6 million Americans (18.1%) ages 18 and older have a mental illness
  • Approximately 20.2 million adults (8.4%) had a substance use disorder
  • Approximately 7.9 million adults had co-occurring disorders

In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that only 7.9% of people receive treatment for both disorders, and an alarming 53.7% receive no treatment at all according to a 2012 study. However, there are treatment programs available at 1st Step Behavioral Health that effectively address co-occurring disorders and treat both conditions simultaneously to support recovery and improve quality of life.

How do you know if there is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Due to the interrelated nature of substance abuse and mental health disorders, diagnosing a co-occurring disorder can be challenging if one does not know what they are looking for. That is why comprehensive assessments are conducted to determine how each person is affected. The symptoms of substance abuse and mental illness can overlap, and some people may think that by treating one, they will fix the other. This is not necessarily the case if co-occurring disorders are present.

A dual diagnosis is determined by the presence of both symptoms of addiction and of mental illness, and a determination that each disorder is present independently from the other. A person will often continue to use drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences or poor mental health. They may feel that self-medicating is the only way that they can feel better or effectively cope with symptoms of conditions such as depression, OCD or anxiety.

There is not a single combination of dual disorders that defines a dual diagnosis, but rather any combination of addiction and mental illness may occur. It is important to stay alert for symptoms of both and to seek help immediately if concerns arise. Select 1st Step Behavioral Health, a rehab facility trained in treating both conditions.

Understanding the Need for Treatment in a Dual Diagnosis Case

It is important to treat both substance abuse and mental illness simultaneously in a dual diagnosis case. This allows the person to better understand how each condition impacts the other and affects their recovery. The treatment they receive may not be the same as someone who does not have a dual diagnosis because they face different challenges. Developing an understanding of the specific needs of treatment in co-occurring disorders supports improved recovery and reduces risk of relapse.

Detoxification is essential to rid the body of any substances that may be influencing an individual’s physical, mental and emotional health. This also helps to determine which symptoms may have been specific to the addiction versus mental illness. Without the influence of drugs or alcohol, the focus is on healing and changing routines and thought patterns so as to prevent relapse and improve mental health. Treatment includes a combination of various therapies, counseling, holistic treatments, medication management, education and support groups. With a comprehensive approach, knowledge, life skills, recovery goals, and support are enhanced while both mental health and addiction are addressed.

Treating one condition and delaying – or foregoing – treatment for the other can greatly increase chances of relapse because not all of the factors contributing to addiction or mental health disorder and overall well-being are addressed. This makes it more difficult to understand the interrelated nature of the two and to learn how to manage both simultaneously for improved quality of life. Although mental health is typically addressed in addiction treatment already, a dual diagnosis program can provide more targeted and individualized care.

Learn More About How to get Help for Addiction

When seeking addiction treatment, research potential facilities and what they provide. If you or a loved one has co-occurring disorders, you want to find a treatment program that is skilled in treating both conditions and can support your individual needs and goals. 1st Step Behavioral Health will work with you to address both substance abuse and mental health disorders and the impact they have on your recovery. Contact us today!

I rarely write this sort of thing, but if it will help just one person to choose 1st Step for themselves or a loved one, it will have served its …Andrea B.

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