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It’s Mental Health Awareness Month: The Link Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse

mental illness and substance abuse

More than 20 million people in the United States are battling a substance use disorder. Close to 44 million American adults are experiencing a mental health disorder. More than 8 million adults in the U.S. today are battling both mental health and substance use disorders simultaneously.

There is a clear link between substance abuse and mental health, and how they affect a person’s mind, body, and emotional state. In fact, because of the way drugs work in (or against) the brain, drug addiction is considered a mental health disorder on its own. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, creating compulsive behaviors that are hallmarks of mental illness.

In light of National Mental Health Awareness Month – happening this May – Turnbridge discusses the unwavering relationship between mental health and addiction below.

What is What? A Breakdown

Before diving into the connection between substance abuse and mental health, it’s important to understand exactly what each diagnosis means.

A substance use disorder (SUD) is the clinical diagnosis for someone (of any age) who repeatedly uses drugs and/or alcohol, and whose substance use has caused clinically significant impairment – such as health problems, disability, and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. 

A serious mental illness (SMI) is diagnosed in people ages 18 or older, and defined as “having (within the past year) a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment” and that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities,” such as work or school. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, among many others. About one in four people with a serious mental illness battle a co-occurring SUD.

A serious emotional disturbance (SED) is the term used for people under age 18 (children and adolescents) who have battled a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in the past year. Similar to the above, this disorder is classified if it substantially interferes with, or limits, a child’s function and role in the family, school, or community. While national data is not yet available for children battling serious emotional disturbances, research shows that more than one in five youth (ages 13-15) will experience a severe mental health disorder in their lifetime.

How Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders Intertwine

As seen in the above statistics, mental health and substance use disorders very often co-occur. National studies show that about half of people who experience a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, and the same goes vice versa.

Substance abuse and mental health disorders affect similar areas of the brain (e.g. its reward circuit) and our ability to exhibit sound decision-making and self-control. And they affect people from all walks of life – children, teenagers, adults; males and females; all races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are multiple factors that connect substance abuse and mental health disorders:

  • For one, certain drugs of abuse can trigger symptoms of a mental health disorder (such as depression or anxiety) in an addicted person
  • In addition, mental health problems can lead to substance abuse and addiction, as many people struggling with an SMI will self-medicate with drugs
  • Finally, mental and substance use disorders share some underlying causes, including changes in brain composition, genetic vulnerabilities, and early exposure to stress or trauma

When a substance use disorder and mental health disorder occur together, affecting a person simultaneously, it is called “co-occurring disorders” or “dual diagnosis.”  According to the NIDA, these conditions can occur at the same time or one right after the other.

About Mental Health Awareness Month

In the United States, Mental Health Awareness Month has been recognized every May since 1949. This national observance is designed to raise awareness about the importance of mental health, and to stop the stigma associated with mental health disorders. 

You see, mental health disorders are all around us. Friends, loved ones, and neighbors near and far struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and more. Yet still, the stigma and shame around mental illness remains. People are afraid to talk about mental health. Many of those affected are scared to seek treatment or ask for help. Currently, more than 450 million people in the world are living with a mental illness. Yet nearly two-thirds of those with a known mental health disorder never seek treatment.

The statistics are similar for those battling co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. According to a recent Surgeon General Report, over 40 percent of people with a substance use disorder also have a mental health condition – yet less than half of those people seek treatment for either disorder. Far too many people are not getting the help they need, and the stigma is largely to blame.

Getting the Help You Deserve

Recovery from co-occurring mental health and substance abuse problems requires integrated treatment. If you or a loved one is battling mental health issues alongside drug or alcohol abuse, do not underestimate the power of integrated, dual diagnosis treatment. Treating co-occurring disorders effectively means addressing them at the same place and time, and understanding how they affect one another and a person’s overall health.

The problem is, most substance use disorder treatment programs do not offer, or are not affiliated with, mental health services. Similarly, most health care organizations do not provide screening, diagnosis, or treatment for substance use disorders. This separation of treatment, according to the Surgeon General, “has contributed to incorrect diagnoses, inappropriate treatment plans, poor adherence to treatment plans by patients, and high rates of emergency department and hospital admissions.” That is why it is so important to choose a specialized dual diagnosis treatment center – one that is integrated and equipped to treat co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. The Surgeon General explains:

“Integrated treatment can dramatically improve patient health and quality of life, reduce fatalities, address health disparities, and reduce societal costs that result from unrecognized, unaddressed substance use disorders among patients in the general health care system.”

Turnbridge is an integrated mental health and substance use treatment facility in Connecticut, specializing in co-occurring disorders among adolescents and young adults. Our staff is equipped with clinicians, counselors, and alumni who understand the complex relationship between mental health and substance abuse. To learn about our programs for young women and young men, or to learn more about co-occurring disorders, please do not hesitate to call us at 877-581-1793 today.