Amid all the complexities in the human experience, the mind is arguably the most complex of all. Our behavior, intelligence, movement and senses all stem from a three-pound, powerful and yet fragile organ. Our brain grants us the capacity to love, fear, desire, hate and recoil. Unquantifiable feelings that somehow quantifies and unites us as a species. Each of us guided by our complicated minds. Whether we teeter between thriving or struggling, we are all swinging on the pendulum of life. And when that pendulum swings toward the latter, it is not only important to understand why we are struggling but learn how to cope with the symptoms.
After all, mental health is paramount to a healthy life. It influences how we think, behave and feel, directly affecting every aspect of our social, professional and personal lives. If it suffers, so does everything else.
For those who do not know how to identify or treat mental health conditions, harmful coping mechanisms might be their solution. They may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, momentarily circumventing uncomfortable, unrecognizable and unwanted emotions or behavior. When that happens, addiction can develop.
And since May is Mental Health Awareness month, here is a further look into this month’s topic of conversation and how it can relate to addiction.
What is Mental Health Awareness and Why is it Important?
A campaign aimed to help millions of people throughout the United States, Mental Health Awareness Month targets all who are impacted by mental health issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults have had or currently have symptoms of a mental illness. A staggering statistic that shows just how prevalent the situation really is.
NAMI’s goal is to help those who do suffer from mental illness understand certain truths: They are not alone. Help is available. And treatment can make all the difference in the world.
But talking about it is simply not enough. Education is key.
Knowing more about mental health disorders can also help your family members, friends, and coworkers. But more importantly, it can also help break the stigma of needing mental health care.
Long are the days when people would be locked away in an asylum for misunderstood behavioral issues. But that does not mean society will not still label you as crazy, or label you as an aberrant stain on the normal fabric of life.
Whether the stigma is structural, social or self-imposed, being viewed differently can put you at a severe disadvantage. It can also lead to shame and isolation. It can invite unwarranted bullying, harassment and, in some extreme cases, violence. And it can also develop co-occurring disorders, a condition when someone has both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder.
The Connection between Mental Illness and Addiction
The relationship between addiction and mental illness is another one riddled in complexity. It is not clear what begins first, but the connection does work both ways. Meaning, people with alcohol and drug addiction can develop a mental illness, while those with mental illnesses can develop substance use disorders. They can occur at the same time, and one disorder can most definitely worsen the other.
According to an article published by Everyday Health, fifty percent of those with an addictive disorder will have a psychiatric disorder. And that number is even higher in those with certain medical conditions.
People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, antisocial personality disorder (characterized by a lack of empathy), anxiety, sleep disorders, or depression have an increased risk of addiction. Those with the highest risks typically are bipolar or schizophrenic.
It is unknown as to the reason for the increased risk, but the publication notes the following:
- Abruptly stopping alcohol intake can lead to withdrawal symptoms — including hallucinations — that may look just like schizophrenic symptoms.
- Alcoholism and drug misuse can cause changes in the brain, sometimes leading to changes in personality and mental disorders.
- Alcohol use disorder can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.
It is difficult to identify which symptoms are psychiatric and which are addiction, but when they are treated at the same time, it is possible to begin the process of unraveling the underlying causes of each.
Likely Conditions and Underlying causes for Mental Illness and Addiction
Certain mental conditions are frequently associated with alcohol and drug dependency. According to Everyday Health, they include:
- Depression. Individuals may start to abuse a substance to mask the symptoms of depression.
- Bipolar disorder. Those with bipolar disorder may attempt to smooth out mood swings with alcohol.
- Anxiety. Alcohol abuse is more common in both men and women with anxiety disorders.
- Schizophrenia. Psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, may lead to substance abuse to ease the distress that these symptoms can cause.
And the factors that could explain the simultaneous occurrence of addiction and mental illness include:
- Genetics. Genetic factors seem to account for some of the comorbidity of substance abuse and mental disorders.
- Chemical deficiency. Neuro-chemical factors were also found to be a common thread when mental disorders and addiction occur together. A reduction in the amount of serotonin, a chemical critical to brain functioning, may be the reason that alcoholism and anxiety disorders coincide so often.
- Shared environment. Studies surrounding twins also showed that environment plays a major role in having both a substance abuse problem and another mental disorder.
Mental Health Symptoms
If you have not been feeling like yourself, you may be experiencing a mental health condition that may require attention. And while mental health conditions may each have different symptoms, some dangerous signs to look out for include:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Loss of appetite
- Impulsive decision making
- Turning to drugs or alcohol in moments of distress
- Suicidal thoughts
Recognizing mental health illnesses during Mental Health Awareness Month is only half of the battle. But it is a step in the right direction. Awareness breeds education, communication and compassion. It paves the way for people to seek help and normalize the condition. Hospitals and rehabilitation centers will have the resources needed to recover from both mental health conditions and addiction. You will learn how to heal and deal with co-occurring disorders, ultimately keeping you or a loved one safe. Do not let the stigma surrounding addiction or mental illness deter you from seeking help.