Addiction and Substance Use

It is not uncommon for mental health problems and substance abuse sometimes occur together. About a third of people experiencing a mental illness also misuse alcohol or other drugs. More than one-third of people who have problems with alcohol, and more than half who misuse drugs, experience mental illness.  

The most important thing to remember is that to be well it is important to take care of your body and mind, and this includes taking care of mental health problems, substance use problems or both.  And you are not alone!

Substance use disorders occur when a person needs alcohol or another substance (such as opiates, prescription medication or marijuana among others) to function. Some characteristics that might indicate that using drugs and alcohol has shifted from recreational use to a problem include missing school or work and losing interest in anything but supporting a substance use habit. For people who become dependent, abruptly stopping the substance may lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Dual diagnosis is the term used to describe the co-occurring problems of a mental disorder and an alcohol or drug problem. These problems are best addressed simultaneously in order to get well.

A person experiencing mental health problems may turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication. Abusing substances can cause someone to experience one or more symptoms of a mental health problem because of the effects drugs have on a person’s moods, thoughts, brain chemistry and behavior. For example, someone can develop mild depression because of binge drinking, and someone’s symptoms of bipolar disorder may become more severe if that person abuses heroin during periods of mania. Mental and substance use disorders share some underlying causes, including changes in brain composition, genetic vulnerabilities, exposure to stress or trauma, and environmental factors.

Drugs and alcohol can be a form of self-medication. In such cases, people with mental illness may have untreated—or inadequately treated—conditions (such as anxiety or depression) that may “feel less painful” when the person is high on drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, while drugs and alcohol may feel good in the moment, abuse of these substances doesn’t treat the underlying condition and—almost without exception—makes it worse.

What can you do?

Read up on symptoms and treatment options. Remember – help is available and recovery is possible.
As a first step learn the symptoms for both mental health problems and substance use. Ask to be screened for both, alcohol and drug use and mental health at a family health center or your primary care provider. You can also call the Access and Crisis Line for a referral that works with your insurance or if you don’t have insurance.

Don’t mix your medications with alcohol or other drugs.
You know those labels on your medicine bottle warning you not to drink alcohol while using? Well, there are good reasons for those precautions and they apply to other drugs as well. Alcohol and some medication interactions can cause serious side effects.

Don’t share your medications.
Prescription drugs can be lifesavers, but there is a fine line between a medication being helpful and becoming a poison. This depends on the dose of medication, what other medications or substances a person might be taking, an individual’s medical condition/history and body weight, as well as many other factors. Your medication is just for you and sharing even just one pill with someone else, although you mean well, can lead to serious health problems for them and even death. To learn more about this and helpful resources visit the Prescription Drug Abuse Taskforce.

Support a friend and family member.
Whether someone is experiencing a mental illness or substance use disorder or both, they need your support and help. The most important thing you can offer is to listen.  Ask open ended questions and reassure the person you are there for them.  Instead of telling the person what you think they should do, share what has worked for you or offer a resource to learn about what has worked for others.

Stay healthy – exercise, eat right and get plenty of sleep.
The simple and fundamental practices of good nutrition, adequate sleep and regular exercise are always helpful.