Mental health symptoms are common among people who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. The effects of the drug itself can cause mental health issues depending upon its mechanism in the brain. Long-term use can compound the problem, causing these symptoms to continue after the drug has worn off and remain permanent or semi-permanent. In others, a mental health disorder that was dormant may be triggered by drug use, and in many cases, people who struggle with mental health symptoms develop a drug or alcohol problem because they attempt to use these substances to manage the uncomfortable symptoms.

About half of all people living with a drug or alcohol use disorder are also living with a co-occurring anxiety or mood disorder – and vice versa. This phenomenon is called co-occurring disorders, and if it is happening to someone you love, your family is not alone.

mental health treatment

Which treatment program should come first: mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment?

At one time, it was considered standard to expect a person to first stop using all drugs and alcohol and then to undergo mental health treatment. This is no longer the case. It is accepted across the medical and mental health community that co-occurring disorders are so deeply entwined that it is necessary to treat both issues at the same time.

Though it may be necessary to attend to a client’s physical needs first in terms of providing medical detox assistance as needed, therapeutic treatment, when it commences, must focus not only on the issues that drove addiction but also on the issues created by the mental health disorder.

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How can mental health issues lead to addiction?

One very common scenario occurs when a person experiences a trauma that triggers depression, anxiety, disordered eating habits, suicidal thoughts, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In an attempt to manage the otherwise unmanageable symptoms associated with these disorders, many people turn to drugs and alcohol. These substances may initially serve to quell the anxiety, alleviate depression, or otherwise numb the pain caused by the mental health issue. However, over time, continued use of these substances will fail to bring the sought after relief and will instead create a new and equally intrusive problem: addiction.

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What are the non-medication methods for treating mental health symptoms?

Though medications may play an important role in recovery from a mental health disorder because they aid in the management of symptoms, they are not the only option in mental healthcare. In fact, for many, they play a steadily decreasing role in recovery as they progress and grow through treatment. Each person is different and will be differently impacted by the specific mental health disorder in combination with drug or alcohol abuse and addiction, and thus different therapies and treatments will make sense in different situations.

However, in general, options may include:

  • Cognitive and behavioral therapies
  • Support groups
  • Family therapy
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Bodywork and massage
  • Herbal supplements
  • Aromatherapy

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How do you know if a mental health disorder is an underlying cause for substance abuse?

You may have an indication that a mental health disorder is underlying your loved one’s substance abuse disorder if:

  • The person experienced a trauma (e.g., physical or sexual abuse, loss of a loved one, or near-death experience) prior to beginning heavy drug use.
  • There is a family history of mental health issues.
  • The person exhibits clear signs of a mental health disorder (e.g., depression, anxiety, or disordered eating).
  • The person has experienced extreme personality changes before, during, and/or after heavy drug or alcohol use.

If you believe that your loved one is living with a mental health disorder, a complete psychiatric evaluation is needed to identify the problematic symptoms and reach an accurate diagnosis that will inform treatment going forward.

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How is PTSD treated?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic experience. The symptoms can be avoidant (e.g., causing the person to want to avoid anything that triggers memories of the event), aggressive, or negative in nature, and intrusive on the person’s ability to function in day-to-day life. Treatment may vary based on the symptoms experienced, however, they often include some combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Guided eye movements performed in combination with a retelling of the trauma event can help to diminish its power and decrease the negative symptoms experienced by the client.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This style of talk therapy helps clients to recognize the patterns they exhibit in response to different events and situations, and assists them in altering those patterns with shifts in perspective.
  • Support groups: Meeting regularly with others to share experiences and tips can be beneficial to all involved.
  • Exposure therapy: Being exposed to some aspect of the trauma can help to minimize the power of the event and put control back into the hands of the client.

Medication:

  • Anti-anxiety medications: Depending upon the substance of choice, an anti-anxiety medication can help to diminish the level of tension experienced.
  • Antidepressants: Managing depression and grief related to the traumatic event can be instrumental in facilitating therapeutic healing.
  • Sleep aids: Insomnia and nightmares are often issues for people living with PTSD, and the right sleep aids can make a big difference.

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Do You Have Questions?

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Can drug use cause a mental health condition?

Yes. Some drugs – including synthetic drugs, LSD, crystal meth, prescription stimulants like Adderall, and others – have been shown to trigger extreme mental health issues. Depression, agitation and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, and more have all been attributed to drug use.

Though acute mental health symptoms under the influence are common, it is often the case that people who stop using the drug and undergo treatment will be able to reverse most, if not all, of the effects. However, in some cases, full recovery is not available. For example, heavy marijuana use in young people with a predisposition for schizophrenia may be more likely to trigger the development of schizophrenia, a disorder that will not improve with cessation of use.

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Is it possible for someone to become addicted to a prescribed anxiety or depression medication?

It depends on the type of medication prescribed for the treatment of the disorder. Depression medications are, for the most part, nonaddictive; though someone may develop a tolerance to a prescribed antidepressant, requiring increasing doses to continue to experience the antidepressant effect, these medications do not trigger the pleasure pathway in the brain and therefore are not psychologically addictive per se. While it is theoretically possible for someone to feel emotionally dependent upon the medication and fearful of being without the drug (one sign of addiction), use of these medications do not generally cause problems in the user’s life, and therefore are nonintrusive and safe for use in terms of addiction potential.

For anxiety, however, it is a different story. Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium are very often prescribed for clients who are living with anxiety disorders. These drugs are highly addictive with a high abuse potential and thus are closely regulated. Taken as prescribed, these drugs are usually safe, however, it is not uncommon for someone struggling with anxiety symptoms to take more than prescribed when in crisis and/or to mix use of the drugs with alcohol or other substances in an attempt to quickly manage symptoms – a combination that can prove fatal as well as increase the potential for addiction.

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Can mental illness run in the family?

Yes. Genetics play a role in the development of a mental health disorder. First, a person’s genes may make that person more likely to experience mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety or to develop a personality disorder if a parent, sibling, or grandparent also struggled with the disorder. Second, being raised in a family in which one or more members is living with an untreated mental health disorder may cause someone to learn those behaviors and be less likely to recognize the need for treatment later.

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What is the best way to talk to someone about mental health issues?

It is not easy to broach the subject of mental health with someone who is clearly struggling from the negative effects of an untreated mental health disorder, with or without a co-occurring substance abuse problem. In some cases, one of the symptoms of the disorder may be that the person does not recognize the problems for what they are, but rather views others as the source of the issue. This makes it more difficult to connect the person with treatment and puts many families in a predicament when it comes to helping a loved one heal.

In dire situations – for example, when people are demonstrable threats to their own personal safety or that of others – it may be possible to enforce an involuntary treatment hold. Laws vary by state and procedures must be followed carefully.

In other situations, if there is a hope that the person will see reason and experience clarity in deciding how best to manage the problem of co-occurring disorders and proceed with treatment, then an intervention can be a helpful method to connect a loved one with treatment. Families are encouraged to:

  • Handpick a few concerned, balanced family members who are all united in their goal of helping the person enroll in treatment.
  • Hire a professional family mediator (e.g., interventionist) to manage the event and make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.
  • Enroll the person in treatment in advance to ensure that that person can immediately begin treatment after the intervention.
  • Remain calm, nonjudgmental, and focused solely on helping the person recognize the need for immediate treatment.

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Do environmental factors, pollution, or chemicals increase the risk of getting a mental illness?

There are numerous studies that support the idea that different environmental factors, including pollution and chemicals found in the environment, may contribute to the development of certain mental health disorders. Whether it is being exposed to hazardous waste, polluted drinking water, or smog in the womb, during childhood, or throughout life, it is clear that there are a number of hazardous substances in the environment that may contribute to or cause lifelong problems including mental health disorders.

Though we cannot necessarily remove these factors entirely or always remove ourselves from exposure, we can learn how to manage mental health symptoms by first identifying them as such when they arise and seeking professional treatment rather than allowing them to continue.