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Mental illness and substance abuse/addiction go hand in hand – roughly half of people with serious mental illness will also experience a substance abuse problem at some point in life. Mental illness complicates addiction recovery and addiction or substance abuse certainly complicates recovery from symptomatic mental illness, but fortunately, recovery is very possible and most people that seek appropriate treatment do get better!

Substance abuse too often accompanies mental illness

If you drink heavily or abuse drugs and you also live with mental illness, you can get better and greatly improve your quality of life. Treatment works best when it’s integrated – that is, when addiction treatment and mental health treatments are delivered at the same time, by a team of caregivers working together.

Definitions - Dual Diagnosis – Concurring Disorders – Co-occurring Disorders

In general, all of these terms refer to the co-presence of addiction or substance abuse and a mental health disorder. They can be used interchangeably.

Why Mental Illness and Addiction Co-occur

Unfortunately, if you’ve got a drinking or drug problem, you also raise your risks of mental illness – and if you’ve got a mental illness, you’re at much greater risk of drinking or drugging to excess.

People with a mental health disorder are far more likely to experience substance abuse or addiction. There are a number of reasons for this, such as:

  • A common event or genetic history can trigger both mental illness and substance abuse (A very traumatic experience, for example)
  • The symptoms of mental illness can lead to substance abuse, for self medication and other reasons (and substance abuse can easily lead to addiction). Additionally, people with certain mental illnesses are more vulnerable to substance abuse problems (they develop abuse or addiction problems more quickly)
  • Substance abuse can trigger mental illness. Taking certain drugs, such as methamphetamine or cocaine, can cause psychotic symptoms directly and such drugs can also trigger depression during drug withdrawal. Drug and alcohol abuse can also lead to work, relationship or health problems that can also trigger mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety

Substance abuse and addiction can cause mental health problems and mental health problems can spark abusive drinking or drug taking – and once a person has a dual diagnosis of addiction/substance abuse and a mental health disorder, both disorders continue to interact.

  • Substance abuse frequently causes an intensification of mental heath symptoms, for example, by worsening depression or hallucinations
  • Mental health disorders can intensify the effects of drugs and alcohol
  • People who abuse drugs or alcohol are less likely to adhere to treatment recommendations and so tend to benefit less from mental health treatments (they are less likely to take their medications correctly, for example)
  • People with co-occurring disorders may be more likely to get involved in confrontations or be aggressive and are more likely to get arrested and possibly incarcerated for their behaviors
  • Co-occurring disorders can lead to greater negative behaviors – which can lead to relationship problems. People with a dual diagnosis are at greater risk of losing their social (family) support system
  • People with co-occurring disorders may be less able to manage finances and may wind up homeless or in unsafe living environments

Because the use of drugs and alcohol and the symptoms of mental illness interact greatly, treatment for those with a dual diagnosis must attempt to better the symptoms of mental illness and the substance abuse/addiction at the same time. Treatment must be integrated to be effective.

The statistics listed below show just how commonly mental illness is linked with substance abuse.


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Page last updated Feb 22, 2011

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