The Connection Between Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Drug Use and Mental Illness

Co-occurring mental health conditions and substance use disorders affect millions of Americans each year.  Studies show that nearly 50% of people diagnosed with mental illness also struggle with substance abuse.  Dual diagnosis is a term that is often used to describe someone who suffers from co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse.  Dual diagnosis is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, often one condition leads to the other, but the symptoms of each condition contribute to the worsening of the other.

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How Substance Abuse Impacts Mental Illness and Vice Versa

For people with a mental health disorder, feelings and emotions can be unpleasant and difficult to process.   It is not uncommon for people to want to get rid of those uncomfortable emotions any way they can, including by using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. While substance abuse may initially mask these unpleasant feelings, it only provides temporary relief and can lead to addiction later down the road.

Substance use can also put a person with a diagnosed mental health condition at risk for dangerous drug interactions. For example, antidepressants should not be taken if the person is using alcohol.

Conversely, excessive substance use can cause underlying mental health disorders to come to the surface. Someone who is heavily abusing drugs or alcohol is likely neglecting other aspects of their lives, such as work, hygiene, family, or other areas of life that may have been important to them before, which can then create turmoil within themselves, triggering them to continue abusing these substances that they once turned to for enjoyment.

Common Mental Health Diagnoses that Co-Occurring with Substance Abuse

Substance use disorders occur more commonly in people who struggle with specific mental health issues including the following:


People struggling with depression often reach for alcohol as a means to try to lift their spirits, but as a central nervous system depressant, alcohol only exacerbates symptoms of lethargy and sadness.


People with anxiety often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to calm themselves.  Substance use becomes a means of escape for these individuals.  Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs can trigger anxiety and even panic attacks, over time, this attempt to self medicate only makes the anxiety disorder worse.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is associated with intense shifts in mood, behavior and energy levels.  People with the diagnosis are more likely to have higher rates of economic instability, relationship problems, and also addiction.  According to a recent study by the American Journal of Managed Care, about 56% of people with bipolar disorder who participated in the study had experienced drug or alcohol addiction during their lifetime.


Past trauma is one of the most common underlying causes of substance use disorder.  Post traumatic stress disorder causes intense anxiety, intrusive memories and flashbacks that interfere with daily life.  It is common for people with PTSD to turn to alcohol and drugs as a means of escaping these strong uncomfortable feelings.  Unfortunately, as with all of these conditions, using substances to manage PTSD symptoms only make the condition worse in the long run.

Why Youth are Particularly Susceptible to Dual Diagnosis

During adolescence years, the brain continues to develop. The areas of the brain that regulate emotions, impulsivity, and appropriate decision-making are not fully developed until early adulthood. This late development is why some mental health diagnoses, such as Bipolar and Schizophrenia, are usually not officially diagnosed until people are in their early twenties.

It has been shown that early substance use significantly increases the risk of mental health disorders and substance abuse disorder later in life. It is also interesting to note that undiagnosed or untreated childhood ADHD can increase the risk of substance abuse as an adult. This misunderstanding presents a unique challenge because the medications prescribed to treat ADHD are stimulants and are addictive in nature. However, research has not associated increased risk of substance use with stimulant use.

Seeking Treatment for Dual Diagnosis

When considering treatment for a dual diagnosis, it is essential to keep in mind the need to address both the mental health disorder and the substance use disorder. If you’ve decided to seek treatment, it is important to find a behavioral health center, such as Legacy Healing Center, that specialized in dual diagnosis treatment to get to the root causes of addiction.  The road to recovery will not be without its challenges.  The most important thing is to be patient with yourself and keep moving forward on your path to a better life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common form of therapy used when treating dual diagnoses because it teaches the person to challenge negative thoughts or unhealthy urges. Effective coping skills are learned so that the person has tools to cope with inevitable life stresses and avoid undesired behavior.

Multidimensional Family Therapy is used when treating a teen with a dual diagnosis. MDFT utilizes a comprehensive approach to treatment by addressing relationship issues, their environment, and parental behaviors, including family and individual therapy.

Medications are an essential aspect of treatment as well. Prior to beginning treatment, the patient will go through a period of  medical detox under the careful supervision of our doctors and nurses. Medication may also be prescribed to appropriately treat a patient’s mental health condition eliminating the need to self medicate with dangerous or illicit substances.

If you or someone you love are struggling with a co-occurring mental health issue and a substance use disorder, reach out to Legacy Healing Center today to learn more about our specialized dual diagnosis treatment.  At Legacy Healing Center we take a holistic approach to treatment healing patients in body, mind and spirit.  Our specialists are available 24/7 on our confidential line to help you begin your journey. Call 888-534-2295 now.