The link between addiction and mental illness has been talked about for years, but researchers have had to be cautious about reading too much into the connection; after all, correlation does not necessarily prove causation. There has also been confusion as to the extent of the overlap between the two conditions. Now, new research conducted jointly between Washington University School of Medicine St Louis and the University of Southern California provides compelling evidence that this overlap is no coincidence.
When individuals experience an overlap of a mental health problem and an addiction, it is usually referred to as a dual diagnosis. It is fairly common for both of these conditions to arise together; this has had serious implications for the treatment of both. Right up until a few years ago, it was common to hear experts refer to those with a severe dual diagnosis as a ‘hopeless case’. Things have changed though, and there are now effective treatment options for people in this position.
A dual diagnosis can occur because the person had a mental health problem before he or she started abusing alcohol or drugs – even though they may have been unaware of the cause of their symptoms. In the short term, the person can feel better while using these substances; however, it actually makes the situation much worse in the long-term. The behaviour of turning to substance abuse to deal with a mental health problem (such as depression, anxiety disorder, or personality disorder) is usually referred to as self-medication.
It is also known that those engaged in substance abuse can trigger mental health problems; for example, alcohol is a depressant and drinking too much can lead to alcohol-induced depression. All of these mind-altering chemicals can be toxic to the brain and long-term abuse can lead to permanent damage.
The study conducted by the two universities in the States used a sample of 20,000 people, following them over a five-year period; almost half of the group were diagnosed with mental health problems. The study found that those with psychiatric problems were far more likely to binge drink (30 per cent compared to 8 per cent of the mentally healthy population), use marijuana (50 per cent compared to 18 per cent), and smoke cigarettes heavily (75 per cent compared to 33 per cent).
Some experts have referred to this latest research as a ‘wake-up’ call. There is now little doubt that those with mental health problems are more at risk of abusing alcohol and drugs. This is concerning because these substances can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness and lead to many additional problems.
It is common for people dealing with mental health problems to turn to alcohol or drugs because they feel they have no other option. This is especially true for younger people who may not be aware that their symptoms are due to something like depression or anxiety. The key to preventing this type of substance abuse is to identify mental health problems early and provide adequate treatment. This requires an effort to educate young individuals to the symptoms of mental illness so they know what to look for.
Once people have developed a dual diagnosis, it is vital that they are offered proper treatment; this means that the two conditions need to be treated at the same time. If only the addiction is being dealt with, the person will be left without a means of coping with the mental health problem. It is also very hard to treat a condition like depression or schizophrenia if the person is abusing alcohol or drugs.