What is the relationship between mental illness and substance use?

Millions of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness or substance abuse. A large number of these individuals do not ever seek treatment or admit to themselves that they have a problem. There is still a considerable amount of stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse. People want to seem like they are strong and have control over their lives. But substance abuse is often a result of not adequately solving the problems of mental health. It can lead to a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse that can make a treatment regimen more difficult than it would have been otherwise.

mental illness

What is the relationship between mental illness and substance use?

In some instances, the use of a substance of some kind can lead directly to a mental illness. Substance abuse can cause many changes within the brain and nervous system that can lead to mental illness. One example of this is the use of psychedelics. Prolonged psychedelic use can lead to the development of mental illnesses associated with schizophrenia. In many ways, schizophrenia is a mental illness that involves the breakdown of the reality-fantasy dichotomy in the mind. Breaking down this barrier is one of the goals of using psychedelics.

Frequent usage can lead to the line being blurred outside of the initial high that a person may have. It can result in a serious mental illness that leads a person to require significant treatment. A less dramatic result can occur from the usage of less powerful drugs. Many drugs contribute to a feeling of paranoia that may remain once the effects of the drug have worn off. Paranoia is a dangerous aspect of mental illness that must be treated right away. Even smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol can exacerbate these particular feelings and lead to some aspects of mental illness.

The more common relationship is a mental illness causing a substance abuse disorder. People with depression and anxiety feel a considerable desire to escape those conditions on a daily basis. They are not simply personality quirks or aspects of a person’s life that they embrace. The states associated with mental illness are something that a person can strive for every day in order to overcome. They would do almost anything to feel better and to end their feelings of sadness or inadequacy.

There are established measures for ending these feelings and aiding in the process of recovery from depression or other mental illnesses. These are often combinations of therapy, counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication. But this combined approach is not perfect and not immediate. It takes time and energy to find a therapist who will adequately help a patient solve their problems. A large number of the mental health drugs on the market today are expensive and have side effects that are sometimes almost as bad as the actual disease itself. These procedures also sometimes take weeks or months. It takes time for an antidepressant to start changing brain chemistry in order to help a person feel better.

substance use

On the other hand, substance abuse is incredibly attractive on its face. It leads to a person feeling temporarily better in a matter of seconds for a small amount of money. At the moment, alcohol or more serious drugs seem like a cure for mental illness and a way to avoid a person’s problems at least every once in a while. They seem like the cure for mental illness when they most certainly are not. Substance abuse can lead to lifestyle problems and a number of other challenges associated with the substances themselves.


A relatively common relationship between mental illness and substance use is co-dependency. In these instances, people with mental illness come to rely upon substances for a multitude of reasons. The vast majority of mental illnesses have damaging symptoms to a person’s psyche that they feel the need to fix somehow. They may feel lost, depressed, or alienated from their friends and activities that they enjoy. Mental illness and substance abuse can feed each other and lead to a vicious cycle.

In most instances, a person starts with some form of mental illness. They attempt to treat or self-medicate with substances that work well for a brief period of time. Then, the individual becomes addicted and the substances start to warp their brain chemistry. Substances cause them to feel even more symptoms of mental illness than they did before when they are not actively consuming the drug in question. The desire to obtain more of the drug causes them to withdraw from activities they enjoy and push away their family and relationships.

Dual diagnosis

Finally, there is the relationship between a particular lifestyle associated with mental illness and substance use. Dual diagnosis is a term used to identify the complex medical situation that arises when a person has both mental illness and substance abuse at the same time. It is a complicated situation that causes difficulties for many of the traditional treatments that are associated with both practices. In some instances, a treatment that could be helpful for mental illness may not be particularly helpful for substance abuse.

Substance abuse is often a practice focused on a particular drug or type of drug that a person takes. That drug may negatively interact or be too close to the drugs that are used to treat mental illness. The doctor would not want to prescribe a drug for a mental illness that a patient abused as part of their substance abuse disorder. At the same time, the mental illness that a person faces may be life-threatening and require immediate pharmacological treatment. There is also the possibility of drug treatments used to help with serious forms of substance abuse disorder where a person cannot stop taking the drug at once without suffering serious side effects.

Dual diagnosis

The most common example of this process is that methadone treatment. Methadone treatment may be particularly damaging to a person’s health but may be the only way that they can recover from taking opiates. In that case, counselors and medical professionals have a difficult job. They have to prioritize which part of the dual diagnosis they treat immediately and which part they do not. Using therapy and counseling, they can have a non-drug approach that is still helpful and aids in their recovery.

What to do

Anyone worried about the relationship between mental illness and substance use needs to treat whatever side is currently afflicting that person. An individual with a mental illness needs to find a safe, functional, and legal outlet to help treat their mental illness. Therapy is always the first step to perfecting a mental health treatment plan. Regular meetings with a therapist at a center like Recreate Life Counseling are essential to diagnose the specific problem that a person may have and establish a treatment regime.

The dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse is a frightening and trying one. It creates feelings of loneliness and helplessness among a large number of patients. These men and women think that they do not have a partner or a way out. They are saddled with two of the most debilitating aspects of a person’s life that they will have to overcome. In this situation, finding a counseling partner like the ones at Recreate Life Counseling is the crucial first step. It can help an individual use the techniques of therapy and potentially medicine to overcome their problems and get their life back on track.