4 Ways Substance Use and Mental Health Are Connected

Struggling with substance use is a lot to handle. Add mental health concerns to the table, and anyone would feel overwhelmed. Sadly, there are millions of people in the United States alone who struggle with both substance abuse and mental health simultaneously. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of the people who experience mental illness also struggle with a substance use disorder and vice versa.

Struggling with two disorders at the same time is often referred to as comorbidity, or dual-diagnosis. The high number of people experiencing mental illness and addiction concurrently is no coincidence. Either can begin first, but one often contributes to the development of the other. Read through the following four ways substance use affects mental health, and you’ll see why.

Changes in the brain

Substance use habits have a massive impact on brain functionality. Several important processes are impacted by the presence of drugs and alcohol in the brain, especially in excessive amounts, and those processes have implications for both physical and mental health.

Perhaps the most significant implication for mental health is a substance’s impact on neurotransmitter functioning.

What are neurotransmitters? Basically, they are responsible for sending signals in the brain and body. They’re responsible for a long list of tasks, like breathing, pumping blood, digestion, sleep, paying attention, learning and expressing moods.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs inhibit the way cells convey, receive and process neurotransmitter signals. Drugs mimic organic neurotransmitters, but send false signals of pleasant sensations. This makes your natural neurotransmitters less effective, contributing to a craving for the false and short-lived pleasant sensation from the drug.

There’s no doubt that substance use and mental health are correlated, because the parts of the brain that regulate mood, reasoning, social interactions and so on are damaged by drugs. These major brain changes make dealing with drugs, alcohol and mental health more difficult.

Poor coping skills

Everyone copes in some way, whether it’s intentional or not. We all have habits we turn to when we’re faced with discomfort, anxiety or sadness. Our attempts to alleviate these feelings can be positive or negative, depending on what we decide to do. Unfortunately, many people cope with mental health by turning to drugs and alcohol, or in an effort to deal with addiction begin to experience poor mental health.

Most mental health treatment includes learning therapeutic techniques to address mental health disorders, and learning these skills propels improvement. Replacing these healthy coping skills with drugs not only stalls progress, but decreases the opportunities to implement other strategies. The pattern is cyclical because as a person increasingly uses drugs, mental wellness will decrease, potentially causing a person to turn to drugs more often.

Relationship problems

Social support is a major protective factor for those struggling with drugs and mental health. There are numerous studies that speak to the negative consequences of poor social support for both addiction and mental illness. The World Health Organization identifies social factors as one of the primary indicators of mental well-being. Moreover, a study conducted on 245 individuals residing in sober living facilities showed that social support factors were a reliable indicator of successful sobriety.

There are numerous potential reasons for the strong connection between social support, addiction and mental health. For one, those who abuse substances often distance themselves from loved ones due to shame or conflict. This intentional separation may elevate feelings of guilt or isolation that were already present or problematic. 

Substance use habits frequently sever an individual from his or her emotional support. By avoiding loved ones to continue with an addiction, a person further jeopardizes his or her mental health.

Additionally, social support offers accountability. By removing those positive expectations that are inherently present in social circles, the motivation to live a successful and functional life may disappear. Surrounding yourself with social support may be challenging, but it could serve as a constructive call to make more positive decisions.

Changes in mood

It’s well known that both drugs and alcohol greatly affect mood. Although they might serve to artificially enhance a person’s mood for a short amount of time, they ultimately leave a person feeling worse. Two of the primary categories of drugs are stimulants and depressants, which either elevate or dull mood. Although mood changes are normal in all humans, substances cause those emotions to fluctuate in an unnatural and even harmful way.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is strongly correlated with mental disorders like anxiety, depression or bipolar. Research shows that those with a mood or anxiety disorder suffer from drug use disorders two times as often as those without.

There is an undeniable connection between substance abuse and mental health and numerous ways the connection can be seen. Brain changes, coping, relationships and mood changes all demonstrate a strong connection between drugs, alcohol and mental health. When confronted with either mental health struggles or addiction, it’s important to seek treatment before one leads to the other. The symptoms of each exacerbate the other and early intervention could save you the trouble of a comorbid diagnosis.

If you are faced with either addiction or mental health concerns, check out Mazzitti and Sullivan Counseling. Mazzitti and Sullivan specializes in diagnosing and treating both mental disorders and substance abuse and offers a wide range of services and treatment options. Call (800) 809-2925 to take concrete steps toward freedom through recovery.