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When Mental Illness and Substance Use Go Hand In Hand

By Loretta Graceffo



Substance use is the third largest cause of death in the nation-- and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, this tragedy has only gotten worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 93,000 fatal overdoses occurred in 2020, the highest number of overdoses ever recorded in a single year.

Although this constitutes a public health crisis of epic proportions, addiction remains stigmatized and misunderstood by many. Often, addiction is viewed as a moral affliction, rather than a physical and mental one-- but the truth is that for many people, mental illness and substance abuse go hand in hand.

According to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 37 percent of people who abuse alcohol and 53 percent of people who abuse drugs have at least one serious mental illness. When a person has both a substance use problem as well as a mental illness, it is called a co-occuring disorder.

There are many reasons why co-occurring disorders are so common. Often, people struggling with mental illness don’t have a strong support system or any examples of healthy coping mechanisms. Because of this, using substances can seem like the only way they can ease symptoms of mental illness. Many people also begin using substances because it helps them momentarily escape their trauma.

“A large portion of people that become addicted started using drugs because they were trying to self-medicate mental illness symptoms,” said Kathleen McKenna, the Director of Substance Abuse Services for Adult Family Health Services (AFHS). “Someone that is depressed or anxious may find that having a drink makes them actually feel better (for a time) and they learn to use alcohol as a primary coping skill, without addressing the underlying illness.”

Ultimately, chronic use of substances can result in biochemical changes and the body. These changes make it necessary for people experiencing addiction to consume the substance just to feel “normal.” At this point, using drugs can become an irresistible obsession and compulsion, taking over people’s lives and impacting their careers and relationships. The desire to obtain more substances, no matter the cost, can also cause people to put themselves in dangerous situations.

Just as mental illness can lead to addiction, addiction can worsen mental illness symptoms, especially because the experience can be so isolating. “Addiction has such a negative effect on various aspects of a person's life that it ultimately leaves them with little to no support, which is so important, especially when struggling with mental health symptoms,” said Julie Bravo.

However, that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. If you or someone you love struggles with substance abuse, mental illness, or a combination of both, there are ways to get help.

At AFHS, we offer Co-occurring Intensive Outpatient and Outpatient Clinic services, as well as Mental Health Partial Care and Outpatient Clinic services. That allows us to provide individualized care and to follow individuals impacted by both substance use disorders and mental illness as their needs change. No matter who you are, recovery and healing is possible.

“One thing people misunderstand about addiction is that they think that people want to do this to themselves-- but most people with addictions want to stop but can’t,” said Mark Bacco, a substance abuse counselor for AFHS. “It’s okay if you tried to stop before and you couldn’t do it. It often takes more than once before a person stops.”

It’s important to recognize that recovery often isn’t a linear process-- but no matter what, the process will always be worth it.“If you are struggling with addiction, don’t give up,” said McKenna. “The past doesn’t dictate the future-- and with will, knowledge and support, you can establish a healthy and fulfilling life in recovery.”


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