The Connection Between Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Nearly 40% of people living with substance use disorders also have a mental health condition. It’s commonly referred to as dual diagnosis, and the tragedy of both is that some people are more vulnerable than others. Whether you’re worried about your substance use or concerned about a loved one, it isn’t easy to know where to start and how to find help. Help is out there. Learn how to recognize the signs of substance abuse and mental health issues and how to seek treatment to overcome them.

Defining Substance Abuse

A Substance Abuse Disorder affects a person’s behavior, leaving them incapable of controlling their use of detrimental substances. Many abused substances are illegal to consume, but not all. Examples of abused substances include:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Prescription medication
  • Cannabis
  • Opioids
  • Methamphetamines
  • Hallucinogens

The Impact of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse’s impact depends on various factors, and substances affect everybody differently. Factors to consider when gauging the effect of substance abuse include how often substances are used, the length of the addiction, a person’s age and gender, pre-existing health conditions, and more.

Substance abuse can cause many problems, mainly if the abuse happens over a long period. Prolonged substance abuse can cause problems in daily life and physical health. Abused substances are harmful in large doses, and our bodies build up a tolerance over time. As tolerance builds, an abuser requires a larger amount to achieve the desired effect. This increases the risk of overdosing and causes additional financial strain.

Eventually, substance abuse can become an addiction, and relationships, employment, and even hobbies can be impacted. Losing the things that make an individual happy or creates a sense of purpose can be devastating.

On average, mental health issues and substance abuse are present more than half the time. However, substance abuse and mental illness have a complex relationship – they’re codependent.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Codependent Conditions

It’s unclear whether substance abuse leads to mental health issues or vice versa. Neither is necessarily a direct cause of the other. Instead, it’s common for substance abuse and mental illness to exist simultaneously. Usually, substance abuse and mental health issues can be reduced to one of four distinct possibilities:

  • Substance abuse results in mental illness
  • Substance abuse is a reaction to mental illness
  • Substance abuse and mental illness sustain each other
  • Substance abuse and mental illness share the exact cause

Mental health and substance abuse are complicated and different from person to person. Mental illness and substance disorders share the exact underlying causes. All examples are genetic vulnerabilities, early childhood trauma, and specific brain chemistry compositions. The presence of both substance abuse and mental health disorders is called a dual diagnosis.

Substance Abuse Can Cause Mental Illness

Excessive or prolonged SUD can result in mental health issues in some instances. Sometimes, the SUD doesn’t cause mental illness but makes it visible or more pronounced.

In particular, psychoactive substances trigger an increased vulnerability to psychological health disorders. These disorders may not have arisen without prolonged exposure to harmful substances.

Mental Illness Can Result in Substance Abuse

More than one in four adults with serious mental illnesses have substance use problems. While it’s more common for substance abusers to have mental health disorders and not the other way around, it remains clear that both go hand in hand. Ongoing mental illnesses result in substance abuse as a form of self-medication.

It is easy to obtain alcohol and illicit substances, and many consider it easier to consume them to mask their mental health issues than to speak openly to their loved ones. It’s common in social circles to consume alcohol to “loosen up” and feel more outgoing. Somebody with a social anxiety disorder may rely on a substance to engage with people daily.

Common Mental Illnesses Related to Substance Abuse

The most common mental health disorders related to substance abuse include depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and schizophrenia. Each has a differing relationship with any given substance. It’s important to remember, too, that mental health disorders are never unequivocal. There’s a lot of overlap between them, and having multiple conditions isn’t uncommon.

Recognizing Substance Abuse

Before you can seek help for yourself or your loved ones, you need to know how to recognize the signs of substance abuse. Pay special attention if you feel concerned. There are three main types of symptoms to identify:

  • Physical
  • Behavioral
  • Social

Physical changes are the easiest to spot. They include sudden weight loss or gain, poor hand-eye coordination, bloodshot eyes, and a general, disheveled appearance. A one-off occurrence isn’t anything out of the ordinary. But pay special attention if you notice these signs regularly.

Behavioral and social cues are harder to recognize, and they’ll require a measured approach. Don’t pry too hard if you can avoid it – substance abusers tend to hide their abuse and become irritable if you become overbearing.

Social symptoms of abuse include sudden changes in social circles and friends, unexplained financial problems, and legal problems. Behavioral changes might include missing work or school, irregular sleeping patterns, irritability, and loss of appetite. Getting into frequent arguments and taking necessary risks are further signs that something isn’t right. Once you’re sure your suspicions are confirmed, it’s time to think about seeking treatment for substance abuse.

Finding Help

Dual diagnoses affect more than 8 million Americans every year. Less than 8% of those people get the professional help they need to overcome their disorders. It’s not easy to get help for substance abuse, but it’s essential. Strong support during a difficult transition is crucial.

For many, getting help is a lot easier than it seems. It’s never easy to admit a substance abuse problem. When approaching a loved one with a suspected condition, be a good listener first. Avoid judgment, practice empathy, and suggest the prospect of professional help when the time is right.

Seeking Help Is the First Step to Recovery

Our mental health is more fragile than most would admit, and once a mental health or substance use disorder takes root, it’s hard to dislodge again. It’s tough to recover without professional help, but professional help is only a quick, non-judgemental phone call away. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, we can help. At Comprehensive Wellness Centers, we specialize in understanding addiction’s physical and psychological implications and are staffed by professionals with first-hand experience. Get in touch and begin the journey to recovery.

Medically Reviewed: August 11, 2022

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer | CWC Recovery Staff

Clinical Team

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Content on this page has been reviewed by CWC Medical Staff for accuracy.


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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