Substance use disorders are mental health conditions, not an exception

May 26, 2021 | by Justin Wolfe, LCPC, CADC, CRC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Those with substance use disorders have historically been ostracized from the general public. Consider common judgments made toward those inflicted with the disease, such as “let them hit bottom” or “they don’t want [recovery] bad enough.”

What other disease do we know of in modern times where the person with the illness is cast aside? Or where they are given a derogatory identifier like “addict” or “alcoholic?”

Their humanity is ripped away and their substance use disorder defines their entire being. Many people I have known throughout the years who struggle with a substance use disorder have said, “If I knew this is how it played out, I would have made different choices.”

Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, changing a person’s normal needs and desires, and replacing them with new priorities connected with seeking and using the drug. This results in compulsive behaviors to seek, obtain and use the substance, with a decreased ability to manage impulses. These behaviors continue despite experiencing negative consequences.

The change in brain structure and behavior is consistent with other mental illnesses, such as anxiety, major depressive or bipolar disorder, yet co-occurring disorders have long been treated as an exception—when they are very much the norm.

Many people who have a substance use disorder also develop other mental illnesses and vice versa. In fact, about half of people who experience a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives.

The connection between mental illness and substance use disorders is often made in adolescence, when there is an increased risk of vulnerability due to limited skills to manage stress and uncomfortable or painful emotions.

The connection made between substance use as a way to solve the perceived problem of emotional pain is made quickly. The earlier this connection is made, the more challenging it is to not reinforce it.

People with a mental health condition may look to substances or alcohol to “self-medicate.” But what many discover is that the substance/alcohol may intensify the very symptoms from which they were seeking relief.

Loneliness and isolation often emerge, which result in feeling disconnected with oneself and others. This can reinforce feelings of hopelessness in the person’s own innate ability to cope with their emotions. Additionally, when a person develops a mental health condition, brain changes may enhance the rewarding effects of substances, predisposing the person to continue using the substance.

Risk factors of suicide are also linked to substance misuse. It’s common for individuals with suicidal thoughts to also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. I have often had people share with me their thoughts of suicide or “being okay with not waking up tomorrow.” They will often quickly express that they are not planning on doing anything to end their life, yet they wanted me to be aware of just how far they had gotten away from feeling that they are leading a meaningful/purposeful life.

There are compounding factors, including one’s own stigma and prejudice about having a mental illness and a substance use disorder. As a result, many people who need help will suffer in silence.

Isolation, fear of judgement and stigma can exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions and create barriers for people to receive the guidance, support and skills to regain a sense of control over their life. This truly becomes a fight for their life.

A young man once described this to me by saying, “I know I always have another relapse in me, but I don’t know if I have another recovery in me.” It’s important to be aware of the overlap between the risk of suicide and substance use disorder.

Addiction is a progressive disorder. Left untreated, it can cause far-reaching damage that can’t always be undone. The team at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health is here to walk with you on your road to recovery.  We realize that people often experience addiction with one or more mental health issues. With our dual diagnosis program, we treat the disorder along with the addiction for the best possible outcome.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, you aren’t alone. Linden Oaks Behavioral Health is here to help. Call us at 630-305-5027.

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