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Addiction and Mental Illness FAQ

Doctor consulting male patient, working on diagnostic examination on men's health disease or mental illness, and writing on prescription record information document in clinic or hospital office

Addiction and mental illness very often coexist in the same person, but because diagnoses are not always immediately sought and there exists such a range of symptoms for both issues, people who struggle with co-occurring disorders often go untreated.

For family members who are impacted by a loved one’s struggle with a substance use disorder and addiction, questions arise almost every day. What is the best way to manage the situation? What treatment options are available for treatment? Is it possible to recover?

Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about co-occurring disorders.

FAQ

Does addiction cause mental illness?

It can. It is not the case that everyone who struggles with a substance use disorder will eventually be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but in some cases, heavy drug use can cause an underlying predisposition toward a mental illness to manifest.

For example, some studies suggest that the strong link between use of marijuana and schizophrenia is due to an underlying genetic predisposition to the development of schizophrenia that is triggered by heavy use of marijuana. In other cases, heavy use of drugs with a significant hallucinogenic effect (e.g., synthetic drugs, and drugs like LSD or mushrooms) may contribute to an ongoing state of psychosis that lasts long after the drugs wear off and may never fully be reversed.

Additionally, use of drugs and alcohol may serve to worsen symptoms related to co-occurring mental health disorders. Though many attempt to self-medicate their symptoms with a drink or by getting high, the end result is more frequently the development of a substance use disorder that causes a host of new issues and requires treatment.

Does mental illness cause addiction?

It is true that people who are living with a mental health disorder are about twice as likely to develop a dependence on drugs or alcohol, and it is also true that many begin using drugs and alcohol in an attempt to manage their mental health symptoms.

It is important to note, however, that living with mental illness does not mean that addiction is predestined. That is, even though living with disorders such as severe depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and other mental health issues may be a risk factor for the development of addiction, it is not guaranteed that a substance use disorder will develop. Nor does it mean that someone who does develop an addiction will be unable to heal from that disorder as a result of their mental health symptoms.

What causes co-occurring disorders?

There is no one single cause of either addiction or mental health disorders; thus, there is no identified single cause for the development of co-occurring disorders. Mental health symptoms can trigger the urge to drink or use drugs, and use of drugs and alcohol can trigger mental health symptoms. In most cases, however, the underlying issues that contribute to the development of either or both disorders include a combination of things that may include any of the following:

  • Genetics: When a close, blood-related family member struggles with addiction or a mental health disorder, it may be more likely that an individual will develop the same or similar issue or issues.
  • Environment: Growing up or living in an environment in which people are living with mental health issues and/or regularly use drugs or alcohol heavily may increase the likelihood that an individual will experiment with drugs and alcohol and develop their own set of mental health difficulties.
  • Access: When easily able to access drugs or alcohol, the person may be more likely to try the substance – and then to try it again. For those who experiment with drug and alcohol use early in life, the likelihood of developing an addiction increases.
  • Personality: Some people can drink or use drugs and walk away without a problem. Others will immediately be hooked on the high and want to experience it again and again. Similarly, some people will seek treatment at the first sign of a mental health disorder and get the symptoms under control or else see benefits from positive lifestyle changes without treatment, while others may struggle with finding tools that allow them to effectively manage symptoms.

Should both addiction and mental illness be treated if they co-occur?

Absolutely. In fact, when someone is living with both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder, it is recommended that treatment effectively addresses both issues. That is, rather than trying to identify a “primary” disorder and treat it first before moving onto treatment for the secondary disorder, it is important to recognize how deeply entwined the symptoms and triggers become and to instead address both disorders with intensive treatment in one integrated program.

There are a number of treatment options that are effective in helping an individual to see improvement in the management of triggers for relapse and mental health symptoms at the same time. Everyone is different, and treatments and therapies will impact each person differently, but in general, many find it useful to use a combination of any or all of the following services to find their way to wellness:

  • Medication
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Group therapy and support groups
  • Aftercare and support

What can family members do to help someone living with addiction and mental illness?

Family members can help those who are in recovery for co-occurring disorders by:

  • Learning as much as possible about the nature of the disorders and their treatments
  • Talking to their loved one’s treatment team and getting guidance on how to support their loved one
  • Working with a personal therapist to address their own issues as a caregiver
  • Attending family therapy sessions with their loved one in recovery

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