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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.
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.
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.
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:
You may have an indication that a mental health disorder is underlying your loved one’s substance abuse disorder if:
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.
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.
Treatment Therapy OptionsSpotting Mental Illness
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.