The Connection Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse

The relationship between substance abuse and mental health is a complicated one. When substance abuse and mental health problems appear together, it’s known as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnoses.  The blog looks at how challenging it can be to understand which came first and caused the problem.

Mental Illness and Substance Abuse 

Many factors can contribute to mental illness and substance abuse disorders. The difficulty can lie with finding the cause of which issue. There are three common reasons for mental illness and substance abuse disorder to co-occur together. The following are below:

  • Typical risk contributors leading to mental health problems and substance abuse disorder
  • Mental illness can first appear and lead to addiction problems
  • Substance use disorders can appear first, resulting in mental illness

For example, if someone has a traumatic past that they haven’t acknowledged. This past trauma could easily lead to mental illness and addiction issues. On the other hand, someone could suffer from addiction issues resulting in mental illness.

Family Genetics

Researchers estimate that 40 to 60% of a person’s chance of substance abuse disorders is due to genetics. Family genes heavily influence the risk of substance abuse and mental health issues.

Epigenetic Forces

Epigenetic influences mean how changes in genetic information affect how the body functions. Experiencing chronic stress, trauma, or drug exposure are things that can rewire how a person’s brain works and change their behavior. These changes eventually are ingrained in the genes and passed down to future generations.

Changes in the Brain

Substance abuse and mental illness affect many regions of the brain, from responses to rewards, decision-making, impulse control, and emotional control.

Environmental Factors

Substance abuse and mental health issues can both come from traumatic environmental factors such as chronic stress, a traumatic childhood, among many others. These environmental factors are easier to change, making interventions crucial to reduce the possibility of substance abuse or mental illness. 

Chronic Stress

Stress is widely known as a critical contributor to mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Stress has proven to cause long-term changes in a person’s brain, from differences in behavior to decreased impulse control. Periods of stress have shown to change how well someone can learn new things, adapt to change, and be motivated to reach their goals.

 Traumatic Experiences

The trauma of being physically or emotionally abused creates the perfect conditions needed for co-occurrence disorders to show up. Someone who has suffered a traumatic experience is more likely to have substance abuse and mental health issues. A person with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is more likely to find ways to calm their anxiety and numb past traumas.

Mental Illness can Lead to Addiction

Some mental health issues are risk factors that could lead to addiction issues.  The reason is that someone with a mental illness will look for ways to self-medicate their symptoms. Some drugs can help reduce symptoms of mental illness, but symptoms can worsen in the long run.

Mental illness can cause someone’s brain to change. Leading to problems how the brain responds to rewards, lowered awareness of the disease, and medication side effects can all be contributing factors that lead to addiction.

Addiction can Lead to Mental Illness

Substance abuse can cause the brain to change permanently, affecting areas that look after impulse control, decision-making, and even how we think. This change in brain chemistry can cause mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, anxiety, mood, or impulse-control disorders. Drug use changes the brain chemistry, which can leave the brain vulnerable to developing mental illness.  

Aspen can Help

Taking the first step into treatment for drugs or alcohol dependence can be scary if done alone. Let our team of medical professionals and recovery experts guide you as you begin to learn how to handle the stressors of a sober life. Our team is ready to help you every step of your road to recovery and to help change your life for the better. Contact the team at  Aspen Behavioral Health to learn how we can help.


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