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What Comes First: Addiction or a Mental Health Problem?

Mental health and addiction. What comes first?

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association:

  • 53% of people with a mental health disorder also experience problems with alcohol or drugs.
  • 29% of people with a mental health disorder have a co-occurring addiction disorder at some point in their lives.

These statistics may lead you to believe that mental health problems cause addiction or vice versa. This isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, the answer is different for different people.

There are a few reasons why these diagnoses occur together so often.

People with mental health problems may self-medicate

When someone has an undiagnosed mental health disorder, he or she may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in an attempt to treat the symptoms. People are more likely to follow this route if they have limited access to healthcare, but anyone can experience a problem with addiction.

Street drugs may seem to relieve mental illness symptoms at first. Here are some examples:

Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – People with undiagnosed ADD or ADHD may feel like they’re getting relief from drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, Adderall and Ritalin. And even though the last two are available by prescription to treat the same disorders, they are dangerous outside of doctor supervision.

Depression, anxiety, and insomnia – Symptoms of these mental health disorders initially seem to subside with alcohol, benzodiazepines and prescription sleeping pills. Opioid drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers also seem to relieve depression and anxiety and enhance relaxation. Unfortunately, relief is fleeting. Addiction will inevitably lead to worsening symptoms.

Addiction can increase your risk of developing a mental health disorder

If you’re already at risk of developing a mental health disorder, substance abuse can be what finally tips the balance. Genetics, environment and other outside factors can increase your chances of developing a mental illness. Interestingly, these same factors can increase your chances of developing an addiction.

Let’s say you’re experiencing minor depression before you start to use. Substances of abuse may make you feel better at first, but they will eventually make you even more depressed than you were to start.

Many people with minor depression go undiagnosed, so your illness may seem to come from addiction. In fact, it may have been lurking beneath the surface well before. Addiction simply put you over the edge.

A brain wired for mental health disorders may also be wired for addiction

In addition to self-medicating, there’s another reason why we see this problem in so many people with co-occurring illnesses. Some of the same brain regions are involved in addiction and mental health disorders. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends messages from one neuron to another. Low dopamine levels are associated with depression.

High levels, like you’d get from opioid painkillers or heroin, are associated with feelings of euphoria. When someone with low levels feels the dopamine rush that comes from the first few uses of opioids, he or she may be more likely to get hooked. Over time, anyone will build a tolerance to opioids and will need more to produce euphoric feelings. By then, most people are already addicted and cannot stop.

Diagnosing co-occurring disorders

It can be extremely difficult to diagnose co-occurring disorders because many addiction and withdrawal symptoms can mimic symptoms of mental health disorders. It is difficult for providers to figure out whether symptoms are purely from addiction or whether they have deeper roots.

The following warning signs may help you determine whether you’re dealing with co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness:

  • You started using drugs or alcohol to cope with painful memories, control your moods, remain focused or quell social anxiety
  • You have an addiction and a family history of mental illness
  • You have a history of abuse or trauma
  • You felt depressed and/or anxious before you started using an addictive substance
  • Mental illness was diagnosed before addiction

Treatment for co-occurring disorders

If doctors have determined that you have both a mental health disorder and an addiction, your treatment plan should address both simultaneously.

Mental health – Your treatment plan for a mental health disorder may include counseling, medication, lifestyle changes and group support.

Addiction – To treat your addiction, you’ll first need to detox from all substances. Then, a medical team will help you manage withdrawal symptoms and the necessary change of lifestyle. Group support is another large part of addiction recovery.

Finding the right treatment center

Ideally, you will want to choose a treatment center that specializes in co-occurring disorders. Your doctor may have recommendations. Check to make sure any program is accredited and licensed. Ask about aftercare programs, too. Depression and anxiety are common symptoms of the secondary withdrawal stage, which can last months. You’ll need an action plan for managing those symptoms along with treatment.

Although it may be more challenging to treat a mental health disorder combined with addiction, don’t lose hope. This is a common diagnosis, and many healthcare professionals are qualified to help you through the process.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Trevor is part of the content marketing team for Coastal Detox and a recovering addict and alcoholic who’s been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc.

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