Addiction affects mental health in many ways. Addiction can exacerbate existing mental health disorders and increase the risk of developing new ones. It often leads to negative emotions, impaired cognitive function, and strained relationships, contributing to mental health problems.
The realms of mental health, addiction, and recovery exist in a very “fluid” state. What this means is that these realms are full of changes, stages, and transitions that are constantly moving and adjusting based on where the individual navigating them exists within them. This fluidity starts to get a little more complex when the comorbidities of addiction and mental illness are present.
The 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, once famously said in a speech, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” That focus on the future is also critical in recovery. However, when the comorbidities of addiction and mental illness are not treated properly, then the positive nature of that future can become blurred.
What Exactly Are Comorbidities?
When an individual is struggling with comorbidities of mental health and/or addiction, it can be difficult to recognize any defined warning signs of either of the specific disorders. This is because, in all likelihood, one co-occurring disorder (comorbidities) often overshadows the other, making it more difficult to recognize. Still, leaving one co-occurring disorder can be dangerous, as not treating all of the issues present can make treatment ineffective. So, if this is true, then what exactly are these “comorbidities?”
The best way to think of comorbidities is to think of the existence of two or more health issues existing in one individual at the same time. When it comes to the comorbidities of addiction and mental health, an example may be that an individual that struggles with alcohol addiction and a mood disorder at the same time, like bipolar II disorder.
It may help to understand that comorbidities are relatively common in the mental health and recovery realm. According to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, “The comorbidity of psychological disorders is a common problem”… and “The lifetime prevalence of any disorder has been reported to be 46.4%, while the lifetime prevalence of 2 and 3 disorders was found to be 27.7% and 17.3%, respectively.” So as we can see, relative to the total number of people struggling with mental illness, the number of people with comorbidities is prevalent.
How Common Are the Comorbidities of Addiction and Mental Illness?
The Substance and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) explains, “People with mental illness are more likely to experience a substance use disorder than those not affected by a mental illness,” and “approximately 9.2 million adults in the United States have a co-occurring disorder.” These numbers are also high in adolescent populations.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Although there are fewer studies on comorbidity among youth, research suggests that adolescents with substance use disorders also have high rates of co-occurring mental illness; over 60 percent of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.” As we can see, comorbidities are prevalent, regardless of population, and those are just the comorbidities that are reported. Many people are often unaware that they even have co-occurring disorders.
How Do the Comorbidities of Addiction and Mental Illness Work in Stages?
Both mental illness and addiction have stages of progression. While there are variations and interpretations among the recovery community as to how many stages there are, the general consensus is that both addiction and mental illness have four.
The four stages of mental illness and the four stages of addiction often closely correlate as well. This is one of the reasons that the comorbidities of addiction and mental illness can be difficult to detect. For example, the first stage of both addiction and mental illness seems to focus on the “warning signs.” An example of this is when an individual in the first stage of mental illness may begin to exhibit problematic symptoms that become noticeable to those around them.
For individuals in the “experimentation” stage of addiction, loved ones may just be beginning to notice shifting behaviors associated with early substance use. The same can be said all the way up to stage four, in which both mental illness and addiction can be the most severely symptomatic. For those with both mental illness and addiction, this is also the stage where not receiving help can have the most severe consequences on their lives.