There is an undeniable connection between drug abuse and mental health. Research shows that over 60 percent of adolescents in substance use treatment also meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental illness. In other words, young people who are battling drug abuse problems typically struggle with mental health disorders, too. Using drugs can affect mental health in varied ways, because of the way that drugs interact within the brain.
How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?
When a person uses drugs, the drugs get absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body, to various organs. This includes the brain. Drugs enter the brain and disrupt its normal functioning. In general, drugs interfere with the way the brain’s neurons send, receive, and process information (via neurotransmitters). In other words, drugs affect how brain cells communicate.
However, each type of drug can affect the brain differently. For example, marijuana mimics the functioning and chemical structure of the brain’s natural neurotransmitters. This leads to abnormal messages being sent throughout the body. On the other hand, amphetamines can release excessively large amounts of neurotransmitters (such as dopamine), amplifying communications between neurons.
Drugs affect various parts of the brain. Firstly, they affect the parts that are dedicated to pleasure (the brain’s “reward circuit”), which is why many drugs cause surges of euphoria at first. Eventually, as drugs are used repeatedly, a user’s sense of pleasure diminishes.
Drugs also affect the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area that powers our ability to think rationally, plan ahead, solve problems, make decisions, and control impulses. Specifically, drugs reduce the brain’s ability to make rational decisions or exert self-control, and cause a person to seek drugs compulsively (and prioritize drugs above other obligations). This part of the brain is not fully developed in adolescence, making young people especially vulnerable to repeated substance use and addiction.
Finally, drugs affect the part of the brain that experiences stressful feelings, like anxiety and anger. Drugs tend to mitigate feelings of unease and therefore motivate a person to continue using the drug. However, this is what causes addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this brain circuit becomes “increasingly sensitive” with drug use, enabling drugs to self-medicate feelings of anxiety and irritability, rather than causing a person to get high. This underlines the connection between drugs and mental health.
How Do Drugs Affect Mental Health?
Now that we understand how drugs affect the brain, we can begin to explore how drugs affect mental health. While each drug is different and will have varying effects on a person, there are a few categories that describe how drugs affect mental health:
- Repeated drug use causes feelings of withdrawal, and withdrawal often comes with mental health disturbances. Common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety and depression, as well as panic attacks, irritability, insomnia, and more.
- Drug abuse can also trigger substance-induced mental disorders, which research defines as depressive, anxiety, psychotic, or manic symptoms that occur as a physiological result of substance use. These disorders may occur during active drug use, intoxication, or withdrawal.
- Some drugs cause mental health problems later in life. For example, one study found that teenagers who use marijuana are at a significantly higher risk for developing schizophrenia in their lifetime. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “Drug use that precedes the first symptoms of a mental illness may produce changes in brain structure and function that kindle an underlying predisposition to develop that mental illness.”
It is also worth noting that, while drugs can have a causal impact on a person’s mental health, there are other ways in which drug use and mental health relate. People with mental health problems often turn to drugs to cope with difficult symptoms, which can lead to drug addiction. Further, people who are vulnerable to substance use disorders are also vulnerable to mental illness. This is because mental illness and substance use disorders have common risk factors, including family history, histories of trauma, chronic stress, and more.
Why Do Drugs Affect Mental Health?
You may be wondering, “Why do drugs affect mental health the way they do?” Why is it that drugs and mental health are so intrinsically connected? The truth is, mental health problems arise and occur in the same areas of the brain that drugs affect. Like drugs, mental illnesses are associated with changes in neurochemicals, and cause problems in the brain’s communication system. They affect how the brain processes information, and how a person feels, perceives, and behaves.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse further clarifies, “Many areas of the brain are affected by both substance use disorders and other mental illnesses. For example, the circuits in the brain that mediate reward, decision making, impulse control, and emotions may be affected by addictive substances and disrupted in… depression, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders.”
Due to the overlapping nature of drug use and mental illness, it’s no wonder why the two often co-occur. More than one in four Americans living with mental illness also struggle with a drug abuse problem.
Getting Treatment for Drug Use and Mental Health Problems
When a person is struggling with drug abuse, it puts them at higher risk of developing a mental health disorder. Similarly, when someone is battling a mental illness, it puts them at an increased risk for drug addiction. This is due to the causal effect between mental health and substance use.
Adolescents and young adults are especially at risk. Because their brains are still developing, they are more vulnerable to the negative effects of drug abuse. In turn, they are also more at risk for developing a mental illness as a result of that drug use.
For this reason, parents must step in and get involved. Adolescents showing signs of substance abuse or mental health distress should never be ignored. While these symptoms could be mistaken as “just a phase” or “typical teenage behavior,” they more likely signal a concerning and developing mental health problem, in which professional treatment is necessary.
People struggling with co-occurring mental health and drug use problems require a specialized form of treatment, called dual diagnosis treatment or co-occurring disorder treatment. This type of integrated treatment – in which all aspects of a person’s condition are evaluated and addressed – positions an individual for long-term recovery and success.
Turnbridge is a leading dual diagnosis treatment provider for adolescents and young adults, with integrated programs for mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and symptoms in between. For information about our programs, call 877-581-1793 today.