Exploring the Relationship Between Chronic Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

by Colleen O'Day |

Although social stigmas can mask their prevalence, chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues affect millions of Americans. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 43.6 million American adults were reported to have had some type of mental illness in a 2014 survey, and approximately 20 million adults struggled with substance abuse in the past year. Within those groups, almost 8 million people face a co-occurring mental illness and substance disorder. If you or a loved one is living with this dual diagnosis, you have specific treatment options designed to address each issue in tandem.

A graphic from the online MSW Master of Social Work program from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work investigates myriad links between chronic mental illness and substance abuse. According to the program,14 million adults with a mental illness used illicit drugs in 2015, and adults with a mental illness were more than twice as likely to use illicit drugs than adults without a mental illness. Some misused psychotherapeutics such as pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants, while others used drugs like marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, and heroin.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, however, that links between mental illness and substance abuse do not necessarily imply causality or directionality from one to the other. Experts still theorize coexistence could be caused by a variety of scenarios: drugs could lead a user to begin experiencing symptoms of mental illness; a person struggling with mental illness could take drugs to try to combat or cope with symptoms; or the same genetic factors, exposure to early trauma or brain deficits could contribute to both drug use and mental illness. Common mental illnesses that occur with addiction include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Alcoholic Woman Who Is Dealing With Chronic Mental IllnessThe separate treatment environments that exist for mental illness and substance disorders may deter those with a dual diagnosis from seeking simultaneous treatment. The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests they would benefit from an integrated program.

“Alcoholism and drug abuse addictions and other psychiatric disorders often occur at the same time,” NYU addiction psychiatrist Stephan Gilman told Everyday Health. “However, they are distinct disorders that must be treated as such in order to get a good outcome for the patient.”

A cohesive treatment plan would likely combine a variety of common elements beginning with detoxification, which gives patients a chance to isolate symptoms of the drug or alcohol addiction from the symptoms of mental illness. Inpatient rehabilitation, psychotherapy, medications, self-help, and support groups can also be vital parts of a recovery process that distinctly addresses both substance abuse and mental health.

Mental illness and substance abuse can be isolating, but if you or a loved one is facing the unique challenges posed by their coexistence — like the millions of adults with chronic mental illness who also experience illicit drug or alcohol dependency — know that there are resources available to dynamically address each diagnosis.

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