The Connection Between Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers some pretty staggering statistics regarding the connection between mental illness and substance abuse. For example, they have found that “[O]f the 20.3 million adults with substance use disorders, 37.9% also had mental illnesses.” They also found that “[A]mong the 42.1 million adults with mental illness, 18.2% also had substance use disorders.”

With statistics like those, there can be no doubt about the overlap of mental illness and substance abuse. However, more important than the connection between the two is how such co-occurring disorders are treated. 

When comorbidities of mental illness and substance abuse exist, it is important to understand that they must both be treated with the same focus and attention. They must also be treated in tandem. If mental illness and substance abuse are not treated equally and at the same time, there is potential for both disorders to remain a disruptive problem.

Understanding the Connection Between Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders

Can Microdosing Help With Anxiety or Depression?

When it comes to mental illness and substance abuse, it is important to understand that their connection is never black and white. For example, there are instances in which a substance use disorder (SUD) can instigate a co-occurring mental health disorder. There are also instances when an individual attempts to treat their mental health issues with substance abuse. However, there are also cases in which neither substance use nor mental illness cause the other.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “While SUDs and other mental disorders commonly co-occur, that does not mean that one caused the other. Research suggests three possibilities that could explain why SUDs and other mental disorders may occur together.” The NIMH explains that these three possibilities are the ones just previously mentioned. To reiterate:

  1. Substance abuse can contribute to the development of mental illness. 
  2. Untreated mental health disorders can contribute to substance abuse.
  3. Both mental health disorders and SUD develop from shared underlying risk factors. These include biological, genetic, and social factors.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Mental Health?

When it comes to substance abuse affecting mental health, there are two factors to consider. The first is that there is a chance that substance abuse can create mental illness. For example, if someone begins abusing a substance to the point of addiction, the side effects can bring mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. This is because excessive substance abuse can bring about changes in brain chemistry. However, the good news is that these changes can be temporary and can be treated.

The second factor is that preexisting mental illness can be made exponentially worse by introducing substance abuse into the picture. This is not all that uncommon because people that struggle with mental illness often turn to illicit substances to self-medicate their symptoms. Additionally, this is why mental illness can increase the chances of developing SUD.

How Can Mental Illness Increase the Risk of Substance Use Disorder?

When an individual is struggling with mental illness, their behavioral choices are often affected. This affected behavior can often lead to risky and toxic decision-making. Substance abuse is a prime example of this.

It is also important to understand that people with mental illnesses are more prone to substance abuse because many of them have not been treated for their mental health issues. On the other hand, many individuals may have not been properly treated. This is why it is crucial to get individuals a proper diagnosis and the mental health care they require.

The Importance of Treating Mental Illness and Substance Abuse at the Same Time

When it comes to treating the comorbidities of substance abuse and mental illness, NIDA has four other concerning statistics. The first three are as follows:

  • 34.5% of those with co-occurring conditions received mental health care only. 
  • 3.9% of those with co-occurring conditions received substance use treatment only.
  • 9.1% of those with co-occurring conditions received both mental health care and substance use treatment.

In other words, less than ten percent of people that need care for their comorbidities ever receive it. This is critical because those individuals that are only treated for one or the other experience a significant increase in potential relapse. 

Once mental illness and substance abuse exist in tandem, they create a symbiotic relationship. One affects the other. That also often means that if both are not treated fully, then neither is treated fully.

As previously mentioned, there is a fourth concerning statistic regarding mental illness and substance abuse. NIDA also discovered, “52.5% of those with co-occurring conditions received neither mental health care nor substance use treatment.” There is a mental health and substance abuse crisis in the U.S. right now, and it is not going to improve with numbers like this. That is why we must get people the right recovery care now. Those numbers aren’t just statistics; they are people who require professional treatment to achieve lasting recovery.