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Is Addiction a Mental Illness? What Science Shows 

is drug addiction a mental illness

Substance addiction is type of disorder that’s often misunderstood. Frequently, we hear people talk about addiction as though it is a moral failing. Some think that it is a personal choice to be (or continue to be) addicted to drugs. Others believe that users can simply quit drugs when they want to. All of these perceptions, however, could not be farther from the truth. 

Here is the reality: Addiction is a type of mental illness that affects the brain’s functioning. It must be treated like any chronic mental health disorder—with intervention, time, and support.  

We must break the stigma surrounding addiction. By defining and spreading awareness about addiction as a mental health disorder, we can help more people find the confidence they need to accept their struggles and seek the proper help. Educating ourselves about addiction is the first step. 

What is Addiction, Exactly? 

Substance addiction is clinically recognized as a substance use disorder (SUD). It is a type of mental health disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, inhibiting their ability to control drug and alcohol use—despite the negative consequences.  

Addiction is considered a mental illness because it affects the brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), repeated substance use triggers changes within the brain structure and disrupts its functioning. Over time, these changes cause the brain to rely on drugs, and the user can no longer control their cravings or impulses to use. In fact, studies show that substance addiction affects the areas of the brain that relate to judgement, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavioral control. This makes addiction a brain disorder, or mental disorder. 

Addiction is categorized as a chronic mental health disorder because it is also persistent and relapsing. The changes within the brain can be lasting, as parts of the brain re-wire due to their dependency on drugs. Fortunately, substance addiction is treatable and manageable. Like other chronic diseases (think: asthma, hypertension, diabetes), addiction recovery takes time, commitment, and ongoing care. 

It’s worth noting that addiction can range in severity. Additionally, a person can develop an addiction to any type of drug, illicit (like cocaine) or legal (like prescription OxyContin). All drugs and alcohol carry risks, including the potential for addiction. However, no single factor can determine whether a person will become addicted to drugs. 

The Neurological Science Behind Addiction 

As noted above, substance addiction is a brain disorder – changing the way the brain functions and behaves. Ongoing substance abuse re-wires certain structures within the brain, making it very hard to quit drug use once an addiction develops. Still, you may be wondering how this actually happens. 

A person’s brain works by sending messages (called neurons) to various parts of the brain and body. These messages are sent via neurotransmitters.  

Drugs and alcohol affect the brain’s messaging center in different ways. Some drugs mimic neurotransmitters, sending abnormal messages to the rest of a user’s brain and body. Other drugs trigger an over-release of the brain’s neurotransmitters, also resulting in abnormal messages being sent. 

These abnormal messages affect different parts of the brain, causing functional, lasting changes in the: 

  • Prefrontal Cortex – the parts of the brain dedicated to decision-making and self-control. 
  • Basal Ganglia – the “reward circuit” of the brain, affecting a person’s ability to feel pleasure. 
  • Extended Amygdala – the part of the brain that processes emotions, like stress and anxiety. 
  • Brain Stem – the part that helps control a person’s breathing, heart rate, and sleep, and that will change in response to certain drugs. 

When a person continues to use drugs, the above parts of the brain are impaired. The brain’s reward system, for example, is overloaded by dopamine and becomes dependent on drugs to feel happy and “okay.” The part of the brain that helps us cope with anxiety, meanwhile, is disrupted and can become dependent on substances to cope with negative emotions. These changes – and the cravings and impulses that ensue – can last long after a person last used drugs. 

For this reason, like mental illness, substance addiction is categorized as a neurological disorder. It causes lasting, persistent changes within the brain. A person cannot easily stop using drugs once they’ve become addicted. Their brain pushes them to continue their drug use, in order to function and feel good.  

Therefore, addiction must be treated like a mental illness. It must be treated with ongoing care and support. 

Is Addiction a Mental Health Disorder? 

Addiction is a mental illness. As defined by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH): 

“Substance use disorder (SUD) is a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.” 

People battling addiction can have other, mental health disorders as well. In fact, they are highly likely to. Many people struggling with an SUD also have mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and schizophrenia, among others. Mental health disorders commonly co-occur alongside substance abuse and addiction for several reasons, such as: 

  • Mental health disorders can run in families, with genes predisposing a person to develop mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and substance addiction. 
  • People with mental health disorders may use drugs and alcohol to cope with their negative symptoms, which can lead to substance addiction. 
  • Substance addiction can contribute to the development of other mental illnesses, due to the changes that drugs cause within the brain. 

While certain risk factors and genetics can make a person vulnerable to mental health disorders and addiction, the development of these disorders often begin within the brain. For example, those battling difficult mental illnesses, such as depression, might turn to drugs to cope. They may be scared to seek help for their depression, and find it easier to use drugs than to seek professional treatment. Over time, this can trigger a difficult cycle of addiction and make mental health symptoms even worse. 

 On the other hand, those using drugs and alcohol may not be aware of the changes occurring within their brain each time they pick up a drug or drink. These changes, over time, can trigger the symptoms of other mental illnesses. This also creates a dangerous cycle of drug use to cope with mental illness. 

Why It’s Important to Recognize Addiction as a Mental Illness 

Currently, many people view addiction as a choice or a failure. This has created a stigma around addiction, and in turn has prevented many addicted people from seeking the treatment they need.  

If we were to collectively recognize addiction as a mental health disorder, and collectively educate ourselves about the effects of addiction on the brain, it would empower more people to seek professional help. 

And professional treatment is often what’s needed to effectively manage mental illness, and prevent addiction and overdose in our communities. Mental illness and substance addiction must be recognized as related, dual disorders. They must be treated as such.  

As stated by Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse: 

“The entanglement of mental illness and substance use disorders requires urgent action. Efforts to reverse the addiction and overdose crisis need to be multifaceted, taking mental illness into account. We have powerful, proven treatment tools for addiction… But expanded screening and care for mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and others must be a component to successfully address the current addiction and overdose crises.” 

If your loved one is struggling with addiction, mental illness, or both, the best thing you can do now is to provide support and empathy, and to get them into a treatment program. Too often, people do not get the proper help because they are scared of what others might think. Let your loved one know that addiction is not a failing, but rather a mental illness, and it requires professional support. 

If you would like to learn about Turnbridge’s treatment programs for addiction and mental health disorders, do not hesitate to reach out. Call 877-581-1793 today for more information.