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The Link Between Substance Abuse and Mental Health

For some people, dependency on alcohol or drug use occurs due to mental health problems, while for others, their addiction contributes to the development of mental illnesses. One thing is true – at some point, addictions and mental health overlap, although every case remains individual and requires a unique approach.


People who struggle with mental health and substance use problems simultaneously experience co-occurring disorders (dual diagnosis). This connection has a high possibility to worsen a dependent person’s overall health severely, so it is vital to timely detect its signs and, more importantly, its cause to avoid harsh consequences.

In this article, you will find more information about how substance abuse affects your mental health, how co-occurring disorders are diagnosed, alongside the guidelines for treatment.

Co-Occurring Disorders: An Introduction

The term “co-occurring disorders” refers to the connection between substance use disorders and any other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders. Co-occurring disorders are also referred to as dual diagnosis or comorbidity. Most people who struggle with co-occurring disorders have at least one primary disorder, while others have both disorders simultaneously.

Co-occurring disorders can worsen drug use or alcoholism effects on the dependent people’s health condition, increase the frequency of relapses, and lead to disability. The most common symptoms are:

  • intense cravings for drugs and alcohol
  • poor performance in school or work
  • legal troubles
  • inability to maintain healthy relationships
  • health problems
  • continued substance abuse despite negative consequences
  • relapse after treatment

Mental health conditions frequently co-occur with substance use disorders that can be caused by stress, genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and personality characteristics. Some mental health conditions like schizophrenia can also be triggered by drug use. In many cases, a combination of substances with alcohol is responsible for provoking mental health disorders.

Risk Factors of Co-Occurring Disorders and Treatment

While it is hard to predict an occurrence of dual diagnosis in advance, certain factors may increase your risk of experiencing it in the future. These include:

  • Genetics. In some cases, vulnerability to alcohol or drug abuse is attributable to genetics. Moreover, genes can contribute to the way you respond to stressful situations or increase the likelihood of risk-taking behaviours.
  • Family history. If someone in your family has struggled with mental health or substance use problems, you might also develop such disorders in the future.
  • Stress. When a person experiences severe anxiety and stress, their immune system becomes vulnerable to infections and disease. At the same time, if this person is struggling with addiction, both conditions may worsen together.
  • Personality characteristics. Certain personality traits put a person at risk of developing co-occurring disorders such as low self-esteem, emotional instability, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms. People who deal with chronic pain may find it hard to cope without their usual sources of relief like painkillers or opioids and seek alternative ways of relief like alcohol or drugs. Those who feel powerless may also turn to alcohol and drugs as an escape from reality.
  • Environmental factors. The main environmental factors associated with co-occurring disorders are chronic stress, trauma, adverse childhood experiences, drug exposure. If you have been using drugs for a long period of time, you might experience impairment in your judgment and decision-making, leading to further drug abuse and additional risks.
  • Early drug use. Drug abuse usually begins between 12 and 25 years old when a person is still not fully developed physically and mentally. As a result, they have higher chances to develop addictions or other co-occurring disorders.
  • Mental health symptoms. If you have been suffering from anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder during your teen years, you have higher chances to experience substance abuse in the future because of the need to self-medicate.
  • Comorbidity type. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 9.2 million adults in the U.S. have a comorbidity that includes substance abuse and a mental illness or two types of mental illness such as anxiety and depression.

When it comes to treating the dual diagnosis, it is crucial to understand that an effective treatment is not possible without qualified medical help and, in some cases, rehabilitation facilities. As every person has different addiction types, mental health problems, life circumstances, and medical history, there isn’t and cannot be a universal treatment plan applicable to anyone. Thus, it is vital to go through a comprehensive examination of both physical and mental health conditions to determine an individual recovery plan to combat co-occurring disorders simultaneously.


The connection between substance abuse and mental health is impossible to deny, as, in one way or another, those two issues tend to overlap. For some people, alcohol or drug abuse may develop as a result of self-medication when dealing with mental health issues. In contrast, for others, it is an addiction that leads them to severe mental health conditions. For that reason, it is vital to be mindful of the main factors that can contribute to this connection, such as family history, stress, personality characteristics, and diagnose co-occurring disorders timely.

Dual diagnosis treatment should be focused on both issues simultaneously, but consider both their differences and commonalities in order to be effective. 

Written by Mark Greene

Mark Greene is writer and life coach dedicated to helping men to perform at peak level. He shares dating advice, style tips and strategies for building wealth and success.