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Substance Abuse and Mental Illness: Challenges and Treatment

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 2, 2019

Substance abuse and mental illness often go hand in hand, and, often times, one condition is a result of the other. Whether the mental illness is the result of substance abuse or addiction is the result of mental illness, it is important to find a rehab center that treats both of these conditions.

Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Often Occur Together—Why Is That?

When two illnesses occur together, such as substance abuse and mental illness, it’s called comorbidity. There are many explanations for why an addiction may cause a mental illness, or why two illnesses coexist in one afflicted person. About 60% of substance abusers suffer from a mental illness, but one doesn’t always cause the other.

Genetics are a common factor in the development of substance abuse and mental illness. Evidence suggests that specific genetic features can put some individuals at a greater risk of developing a second illness in response to the first. An environmental trigger is also necessary, which may include early trauma, stress, or exposure to drugs at an early age.

Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

Families may not recognize that a mentally ill person might also have a substance abuse issue, largely because behavioral changes associated with substance abuse are often already present in the mentally ill. They may be argumentative, absent-minded and rebellious because of their illness and nothing more. However, if they begin to display other signs, such as money problems, needle marks, dilated eyes, long trips to the bathroom, or if they are stealing from others in the house, an addiction may exist.

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In many cases, those with an addiction become mentally ill, not the other way around. Frequently long, drawn-out addictions to drugs or alcohol lead to mental illness. Once damage is done to the brain, it may be difficult to fully reverse, but there is always hope. This is why early intervention is so important.

Addressing Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

Addressing a substance abuser can often be tricky because denial is their most likely response. It’s best to avoid dealing with the issues when the person appears to be under the influence. This is a delicate matter and must be treated as such. Threats of calling the police or hospitalization shouldn’t be made without full intent of following through. One may say something they don’t mean during confrontation, and it’s important to make sure the individual knows that you mean what you say.

Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Treatment

Regular substance abuse treatment programs may not be enough for someone suffering from mental health issues. Entering a program that refers the individual back and forth between a mental health facility and a substance abuse facility, or “Ping-Pong therapy”, isn’t the best option. A “hybrid” treatment program capable of addressing both illnesses together is a better alternative.

The program chosen should take a gradual approach and may last longer than a traditional substance abuse program. Choosing a treatment option that allows the individual to work at his own pace often yields better results. Counseling to help the patient cope as he returns to the outside world is also vital.

If someone you love suffers from both substance abuse and mental illness, contact us today for free information about treatment options. Or start by clicking here to find substance abuse rehab centers near you.

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