Co-Occurring Disorders: Understanding the Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction

Last Updated: Jul 23rd 2019

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, around 50% of people who suffer from mental illness also suffer from substance abuse as well. Clearly, there is a correlation between these two conditions that shouldn’t be ignored, especially when seeking treatment.

Mental illness and addiction can feed into each other, leading to worsening symptoms over time. If treated together, there’s hope for recovery.

Read on to learn more about the connection between mental illness and addiction, as well as options for treatment. 

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a largely stigmatized term, usually associated with a lack of morals or self-control that has resulted in a self-inflicted condition. However, scientific evidence has suggested that addiction is a disease of the brain, which means it’s less voluntary than some people might think.

When you take drugs or other illicit substances, it activates the brain’s pleasure center and releases dopamine, subconsciously reinforcing the behavior despite its harmful effects on the body. This results in a rapidly forming habit that can soon develop into an addiction, which can happen as soon as the first time you use.

After you’ve used the drug more and more, your body becomes used to the amount of dopamine released and requires more of the substance in order to achieve the same high. At the same time, your brain grows to depend on the drug, seeking that same chemical release it has quickly become accustomed to. This results in the chronic mental disease of addiction.

How are Mental Illness and Addiction Correlated?

Modern psychology has suggested that some people are more prone to addiction than others. That’s why some people are able to resist trying these substances in the first place, while others are not. This is due to a variety of factors, including environment, development, and even genetics.

At the same time, a person’s environment, development, and genetics could also make them more prone to mental illness. Mental illness and addiction both can be classified as diseases of the brain. Their effects also tend to feed into one another, making a person with one condition much more likely to develop the other as well.

Because of their effects on the brain, addiction is strongly correlated with mental illness. Both have a unique, unwavering ability to affect nearly every area of your life, including work performance, personal relationships, and general outlook of the future. If either is left untreated, this can cause the other to become even worse.

Self-Medicating with Substances

The most common factor that ties mental illness and addiction together is the need to self-medicate with the addict’s drug of choice. Those will mental illness often suffer from symptoms of extreme sadness that can be difficult to cope with alone, encouraging the sufferer to seek out drugs and other illicit substances as a form of relief.

People with mental illnesses are prone to drug use as a means of escaping from their symptoms. Here are just a few examples of correlations between mental illness and addiction:

  • Those who suffer from social anxiety, agoraphobia, and other general forms of anxiety may grow dependent on alcohol as a means of numbing their symptoms.
  • Sufferers of schizophrenia and other diseases that cause visual and auditory hallucinations might reach for drugs to escape the pain of these visualizations.
  • Those with depression are much more likely to reach for any number of illicit substances to deal with the pain and hopelessness they feel.
  • People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may turn to drugs and alcohol in order to shut off their inner dialogue.
  • Those who are medicated for their mental illnesses may seek out drugs and other illicit substances to deal with the side effects of their medications.

As you can see, mental illness creates a dangerous environment in which addiction can easily thrive. People who feel hopeless and alone often turn to drugs in order to feel more normal, or at least to be numbed for a little while.

Although drugs and other illicit substances offer temporary relief of the painful symptoms associated with mental illness, they are not an effective means of treatment. They make mental illness worse over time and can make way for a whole new set of problems.

Drugs Can Cause Mental Illness

It has been shown that the extended use of some drugs, primarily those with psychoactive properties, can actually cause mental illness or cause latent psychiatric symptoms to emerge. 

For example, psychedelic drugs like LSD have been shown to induce psychosis in some cases. The psychoactive properties of these substances alter the brain in such a way that it can lose control, resulting in temporary or prolonged detachment from reality.

Depending on the dose and frequency of use, cannabis has also been shown to have harmful long-term effects on the brain. Even if these drugs seem harmless in nature, they have the potential to cause many issues down the road.

Mental Illness and Addiction: Mutual Triggers

Both mental illness and addiction have the potential to make each other worse, no matter which one you start with. Whether you’re self-medicating a mental illness with drugs or suffering worsening mental health due to addiction, the symptoms of one can quickly trigger the other.

Because mental illness and addiction are mutual triggers, they both must be treated in order to get things back to normal again. The best way to do so is by taking a holistic approach to treatment. In other words, mental health must be treated as well as the addiction. By taking on these mutual triggers and recognizing them for what they are, you can finally have a chance to recover.

Find Treatment Options Now

Mental illness and addiction are correlated conditions that can both feed into each other if left untreated. This can be difficult, if not impossible, to face on your own.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness and addiction, we’re here for you. Conquering the issue with a holistic approach to treatment may be the answer you’re looking for.

Contact us today to start treatment and get your life back.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.

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