Mental Illness and Substance Abuse
Mental health problems and substance abuse often go together.
Among the areas where this research is most prominent is a
condition known as bipolar disorder -- a disease characterized by cycles of
extreme mood swings between deep depression and high elation, or mania. During
periods of mania, patients show extreme irritability, racing thoughts, little
need for sleep, poor judgment, distractibility, abuse of drugs, and denial that
anything is wrong. Depressive periods are associated with feelings of
hopelessness, guilt, too much sleep, and thoughts of death or suicide.
"What we have found is that people with bipolar disorder,
particularly women, have an enormously high rate of alcoholism -- up to seven
times that of the general population," says Mark Frye, MD, director of the
UCLA Bipolar Disorder Research Program in Los Angeles.
This is also true, says Frye, when both male and female bipolar
patients are compared to those with other forms of mental illness.
And while the reason remains unclear, Frye tells WebMD that
there is at least some evidence that the two conditions share many
Indeed, as the age of "brain science" continues to
mature, a number of researchers have begun to note some startling similarities
within the brain chemistry patterns of various types of mental health problems
and substance abuse. Some of the more interesting discoveries had to do with
animal models of addiction.
"Research on rats showed us that there were certain
pleasure centers of the brain that, when stimulated, elicited such a powerful
response, the animal would opt for stimulation over food," says Francis
Hayden, MD, associate director of the division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse
at Bellvue Hospital in New York.
This discovery, he says, led many researchers to question
whether there was something different about the brains of substance abusers
that "causes them to kind of feel not quite right -- so that when they
happen upon a substance, it kind of normalizes them in a way," says
That feeling of "not quite right," he says, may be the
mental health problem at work.
Another indication that they may be one disease: Studies that
show that when one condition worsens, the other is soon to follow suit.