Mental Illness and Its Relationship with Substance Abuse

Many people living with addiction began using drugs or alcohol to help cope with troubling feelings and emotions, sometimes from undiagnosed mental health conditions. On the other hand, people with addiction are also more likely to develop a mental health disorder due to changes in their brains and lifestyles. The link between mental illness and substance abuse is prominent and requires special attention during addiction treatment.

At BlueCrest Recovery, we know people with mental illness and substance use disorders need comprehensive care when they seek addiction treatment. Our dual diagnosis treatment program helps our clients get sober while addressing unhealed trauma and other mental health symptoms. Learn more and get started in our New Jersey center today.

The Link Between Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), “There is a definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances.”1 The research and study conducted by NBER focused on alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco use. It revealed that when people have various forms of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, substance abuse rates increase.

Given that their findings saw a strong correlation between mental illness and substance abuse patterns in alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco, many experts believe it is safe to assume there is also a high probability of substance abuse and mental illness for other substances.

In fact, in 2012, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that people with mental health conditions abused various substances 26.7% of the time, compared to 13.2% of the general public without mental disorders.

Why Are Substance Abuse Rates Higher in Those with Mental Illness Disorders?

Part of the reason why substance abuse rates are higher in people with various mental illness disorders is that they will often try to self-medicate and control their mental illness on their own. For instance, someone with bipolar disorder might try to manage their manic behavior by consuming excessive amounts of alcohol to bring them down and then use stimulants to get a buzz when feeling depressed.

In other cases, people diagnosed with some form of mental disorder often take various types of prescription medications. Some of these can have adverse side effects, so the individual self-medicates using other substances to offset the side effects. As a result, they end up abusing multiple drugs.

The Dangers of Prescription Drug Abuse by Those with Mental Disorders

Prescription drug abuse is a growing concern among those with mental disorders. Part of the issue stems from certain drugs like Xanax, a benzodiazepine, which have a sedating effect. As someone continues to take Xanax, they quickly build up a tolerance. To offset the tolerance, they must increase their dosage to achieve the same effects they did when they first started taking the drug.

Another concern is that certain drugs, like Xanax, should only be taken briefly because they are highly addictive. Yet, people often remain on these drugs far past when they should have been switched to a different medication.

These are just two of the most common reasons people with mental illness might become addicted to prescription drugs, and the outcome can be devastating. According to data collected and reviewed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2004 through 2009, there was a 148.3% increase in emergency room visits from drug-related emergencies caused by Xanax.

Can a Person Develop a Mental Disorder by Abusing Drugs?

Someone at risk of mental illness due to family history or genetics can increase their risk of developing a mental disorder by abusing various drugs and illicit substances. They may trigger areas of the brain that respond to addiction, even if they’ve never had a problem with drugs or alcohol before.

The Dangers of Drug Use in Teens

For teens, abusing drugs during formative years while the brain and body are still developing can lead to mental disorders in the future. Specific cognitive functions and brain growth will not be fully developed until the late teens and early twenties.

Experimenting with drugs and alcohol and developing an addiction can alter these development processes. Mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are correlated with early, frequent drug use. In turn, these disorders are treated with prescription medications, which are frequently abused as well.

Further complicating the problem is that many adolescents obtain access to prescription drugs right out of their families’ medicine cabinets or from their friends. Since the teens abusing prescription medications are not prescribed the drugs, the side effects can be more pronounced, which can also lead to mental illness disorders.

Exploring the Teen Drug Use Epidemic

To better illustrate the abuse of prescription drugs by teens, statistical and trend data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 2017 was compared to 2016 data for various prescription medications and abuse by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. The findings focused on specific drug classes and the percentage change from 2016 to 2017.

Some of the findings uncovered include the following:

  • There was an increase overall of 10.9% for any prescription drug (i.e., amphetamines, sedatives, tranquilizers, narcotics (not counting heroin), barbiturates, etc.).
  • There was an increase of 0.8% for 8th graders, 2.2% for 10th graders, and 2.7% for 12th graders in OxyContin abuse.
  • The drug classes with the most significant increases were amphetamines (Adderall) and tranquilizers (Xanax).
  • The abuse of Adderall was reviewed on its own and resulted in an increase of 1.3% in 8th graders, 4% in 10th graders, and 5.5% in 12th.
  • The abuse of all amphetamine drugs increased 3.5% in 8th graders, 5.6% in 10th graders, and 5.9% in 12th.
  • The abuse of tranquilizers, like Xanax, increased by 2% in 8th graders, 4.1% in 10th graders, and 4.7% in 12th.

It is important to stress these increases in prescription drug abuse were among adolescents and teens who were not prescribed these drugs. Additionally, the abuse of prescription drugs by those aged 14 and older are the most commonly used substances, trailing behind marijuana and alcohol.

The Impact Chronic Drug Abuse Can Have on Mental Illnesses

Chronic substance abuse is when a person has become so addicted to a drug that they are dependent on it both psychologically and physically. They strongly believe they cannot function without taking the drug. They will likely be reluctant to stop even if they realize they have a substance abuse problem.

This creates what is referred to as a co-occurring, comorbid, or dual diagnosis disorder. This type of disorder is sometimes hard to recognize because the individual may only present with signs of substance abuse or symptoms related to their mental disorder. However, upon further examination and time, it is uncovered that multiple issues must be addressed—overcoming their addiction and treating the mental disorder.

In the medical community, there is much debate about whether chronic substance abuse creates mental health disorders or if mental health disorders are the cause of chronic substance abuse. Yet, what most healthcare professionals do agree upon, is while there is indeed a close correlation between the two, one condition is not the direct cause of the other.

Why Substance Abuse Treatment Is Essential to Recovery

In co-occurring disorders, substance abuse treatment is vital to a successful recovery. Treatment must be tailored to address the individual’s mental disorder and substance abuse patterns. Identifying and working through co-occurring disorders is critical to the success of any person who struggles with substance abuse and mental illnesses.

The objective is not only to slowly taper the person off the drugs they have become addicted to but also to develop effective holistic methods for treating their mental disorder. Taking this approach guides the individual on a successful path to recovery.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment at BlueCrest Recovery

Dual diagnosis treatment is a cornerstone of the addiction rehab programs at our New Jersey center. When clients arrive, our team of professionals works with them to develop a treatment plan that addresses their addiction and any accompanying mental health disorder.

To learn more about co-occurring disorders, our rehab treatment programs, and other addiction treatment services, please contact BlueCrest Recovery at 888.292.9652 today.



  1. NBER – Mental Illness and Substance Abuse (2002)

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