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Substance Abuse and Mental Health: 5 Facts You Need to Know

By Manjari Bansal
Drug addiction may lead to mental illness or vice versa. Here are five important facts about substance abuse and mental health.

Substance use disorder and mental health conditions are often closely relatedone may cause the other, or they may occur at the same time. In fact, there are special terms that distinguish the combination of a substance use disorder and a mental illness. When these conditions occur simultaneously, it's called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Read on for five interesting facts about the connection between substance abuse and mental health.

1. Substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental illness often occur simultaneously.  

“Mental health and substance use disorder co-occurrence is well studied and documented,” Dr. Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Patients with substance use disorder are at higher risk of experiencing depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, PTSD, eating disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD,” Lagoy says.

The combination of substance abuse and mental illness is known as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In 2019, nearly 9.5 million American adults suffered from both conditions, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“There is a significant overlap between mental health and substance misuse, with over 80% of individuals having both,” Monty Ghosh, MD, Addiction Specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

2. Substance use disorder is a mental health condition.

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a mental illness that affects your brain and behavior, states the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). Those with an SUD typically find it difficult to control their urges to use substances such as illicit drugs, alcohol, or medication—despite knowing that these substances cause harmful effects.

“Substance use disorders are highly prevalent, according to a survey in 2017. In the United States, about 7.2% of individuals 12 years and older had a substance use disorder within the past year,” Lagoy adds.

3. Mental disorders and SUDs can have common risk factors.

Since both SUDs and mental disorders can run in families, certain genes might be a risk factor for both conditions, states the NIMH. Genetic changes, which may happen due to certain environmental factors like stress and trauma, are passed down through generations and may lead to the development of SUDs or mental disorders.

“A family with a parent with substance use disorder is associated with higher rates of physical and sexual abuse, which increases the risk of substance use disorder in children,” Lagoy says.

4. Mental health conditions can lead to substance misuse.

Studies have shown that people with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may start using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, states the NIMH. This may provide temporary relief from symptoms of mental illness.

 Although some drugs may provide you temporary relief, these drugs may worsen mental health symptoms over time. Additionally, the rewarding effect of such substances can make them difficult to quit.

5. Substance use during adolescence may increase vulnerability to the later development of an SUD.

Multiple national population surveys have found that around 50% of people who have an SUD will also experience mental illness during their lives, and vice versa.

Additionally, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the brain circuits that control executive functions like decision-making and impulse control reach maturity at a relatively later developmental time, which increases vulnerability to drug use and the development of an SUD in adolescents. Early drug use is a strong risk factor for the later development of an SUDand may also be a risk factor for the later emergence of additional mental illnesses. However, the link between SUDs and other mental illnesses is not necessarily causative, and may be related to the shared risk factors that the two conditions share, such as:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Psychosocial experiences
  • Environmental influences

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