Mental illness and addiction often go hand-in-hand. People who abuse drugs often have mental disorders while people with mental health problems often abuse drugs and alcohol. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between mental illness and addiction, or even determine which occurred first. While addiction and mental illness often occur at the same time, they are two distinct conditions that require two very different approaches to treatment.
Doctors refer to this “chicken and the egg” type of relationship between two disorders as comorbidity, where having one condition increases your risk for having the other. Researchers have documented a high rate of comorbidity between mental disorders and substance abuse since the 1980s. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people diagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders are more than twice as likely to suffer a comorbid drug disorder. Additionally, many studies suggest untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can increase the risk for substance abuse issues.
Mental illness may raise the risk for drug abuse and alcoholism as individuals use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate without the help of a trained physician. At the same time, substance abuse increases the risk for mental health problems as they lead to significant depression and anxiety that closely resemble mental illness.
Gender also plays a role in comorbidity. Overall, rates of drug abuse and dependence are higher among males than females for most types of drugs and males are more likely to suffer from antisocial personality disorder. Females have higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders, on the other hand, which increase the risk for substance abuse.
NIDA says that drug addiction itself is a mental illness because it changes the brain in fundamental ways, disrupts the individual’s normal hierarchy, and makes the procurement of drugs and drug abuse a priority over other aspects of a person’s life.
Stigma, Comorbidity, and Self-Medication
In the United States, there is a great deal of social stigma attached to mental disorders. This social stigma can make it embarrassing to accept a diagnosis of mental illness. Shame prevents many people from seeking professional help for their mental issues.
At the same time, the American public seems to be more accepting of substance abuse. Many celebrities use drugs and alcohol openly. Modern movies sometimes glorify drug and alcohol abuse.
The social stigma of mental illness combined with widespread acceptance of substance abuse creates a situation where a person might choose to use drugs or alcohol to treat his symptoms rather than risk the embarrassment of going to a doctor. From a nonprofessional’s perspective, substance abuse may seem to be the “safer” choice of treatment for a mental disorder. Unfortunately, self-medicating a mental health issue with alcohol or drugs will not work.
Doctors prescribe various therapies based on scientific evidence that those treatments will work. A doctor prescribes a specific antibiotic after lab tests confirm the patient’s infection will respond to that particular drug, for example, or refer a patient for nutritional counseling after blood tests show the patient has diabetes.
Doctors approach mental health treatment in the same way – by carefully evaluating the patient’s condition then prescribing specific treatments known to work for that condition. Alcohol and drug abuse are never an appropriate part of a mental health treatment program.
If you or someone you love has comorbid mental health issues and substance abuse problems, do not try to address the problem on your own. Talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with Waismann Method®. Help begins with an accurate diagnosis and a clear treatment plan based on medical science.