Complex mental illnesses are often intensified by alcohol and drug abuse and some conditions can develop as a direct result of addiction. Because mental illness and addiction often go hand-in-hand, it is extremely important to get an accurate diagnosis in order to treat both conditions separately. Alcohol and drug abuse are said to interact with mental illness in a ‘complex dance’ and patient cases usually fall into the following categories:

  • Addiction is the result of self-medicating a pre-existing mental health disorder; or
  • Alcoholism and drug addiction have led to someone developing depression and anxiety.

The difficulty in these dual diagnosis cases is that one condition can be more severe than the other and also, that a patient is in danger of entering a self-perpetuating negative cycle where one condition ‘feeds’ off the other and vice versa.

The fact is that addiction and other psychiatric disorders often occur at the same time and they need to be identified in order to be treated effectively in a dual diagnosis treatment center.

The mental health conditions most frequently associated with drug and alcohol addiction include the following:

  • Depression: Some people start misusing alcohol and drugs to self-medicate depression and mask its symptoms. This is particularly true for women as research shows they are more likely to have depression before developing an addiction.
  • Bipolar disorder: Bipolar is a mental illness that is characterized by cycles of an abnormally elevated mood and deep depression. Sometimes either the mania or depression can last for prolonged periods and both are as damaging to the sufferer. It is not unusual for people with bipolar disorder to use alcohol or drugs as a way to manage their symptoms which tend to be very extreme and erratic.
  • Anxiety: Research shows that substance abuse is more common in people who have pre-existing anxiety disorders.
  • Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is characterized by psychotic symptoms that are very hard for a sufferer to manage without treatment including hallucinations and delusions. Sufferers often turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve these very distressing symptoms.

The additional issue for people with mental health disorders who are abusing drugs or alcohol is the personal risk they subject themselves to. Because they are likely to be less inhibited in their behavior than others without a mental disorder, they may places themselves in high-risk situations by buying and using illegal drugs or consistently drinking to excess. It is not unusual for mental health sufferers to have impaired judgment which drives risk-taking behavior.

Underlying Causes of Drug Abuse and Mental Illness

When assessing each case in a dual diagnosis treatment facility, it is important to take the following factors into consideration in order to get an accurate dual-diagnosis.

  • There are some genetic factors that can account for patients displaying co-morbidity, which is when they have addiction issues with a concurrent mental health disorder. Researchers have compared identical and fraternal twins to establish the role of genetics in developing mental illness and addiction and there are early indications that they play a strong part.
  • Another common thread that links mental illness and addiction are neuro-chemical factors including a reduction in the production of serotonin which is critical to effective brain function. Research shows that there are links between dysfunction in the brain and both mental illness and addiction.
  • A person’s environment and the people they share it with is a significant contributor to instances of substance abuse and concurrent mental health conditions.

Addiction and Mental Illness: What Is the Exact Relationship?

Although there is a good understanding of dual-diagnosis and the relationship between mental health and addiction, the exact nature of that relationship is not entirely clear. However, what has been established is that people with certain mental health conditions have a heightened tendency to develop issues with drugs or alcohol. Statistics have revealed that around half of those with addiction issues also have a psychiatric disorder, whereas 20% of those with a pre-existing mental illness have concurrent addiction.

There are certain mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar and schizophrenia that carry a higher risk of developing addiction than others. It has not yet been established why people with these conditions are at an increased risk of becoming addicts although it has been noted that the following factors may also be at play in these cases:

  • Sometimes people can present the symptoms of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia if they abruptly stop using alcohol or drugs, particularly if they choose to detox outside of a dual diagnosis treatment centers.
  • Substance abuse and alcoholism can cause changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters that can lead to changes in personality and mental health disorders.
  • Although both genders frequently suffer from anxiety and depression and concurrent addiction, men are more likely to display symptoms of personality disorders than those who do not abuse alcohol or drugs.

For someone who has both mental illness and addiction issues, dual diagnosis treatment is crucial. This is because it’s important to identify both conditions accurately and treat them separately for the most effective outcomes. Dual diagnosis treatment achieves this by undertaking comprehensive assessment of each patient as they enter a dual diagnosis program. Ultimately, every individual patient has their own story to tell and it is never a case of ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to creating and implementing a treatment program.