Is Addiction a Mental Illness?


The simple answer is yes, drug and alcohol addiction is a mental illness. While it may be a person’s choice to take a drink or ingest drugs, these activities alter the brain so much that they effectively do not have the same brain as before they took these substances. Their behavior, emotional regulation, and thinking are altered because of these changes. Additionally, a person can also be predisposed to addiction through genetics, such as with other types of mental illness.

Effective addiction treatment often involves treatment that takes existing mental illness into account. This is an approach known as dual diagnosis treatment, and it incorporates treatment and education about co-occurring mental illnesses that the person may deal with in addition to their addiction.

To not address mental illness during addiction treatment is to not address all the addicted person’s needs, which can drastically sabotage relapse prevention efforts. It’s important to take it into account to promote the healing of the entire person.

The Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction

One of the longest debates about addiction is regarding whether it is a choice to become an addict. Is it something that a person can choose? Is it a mental illness that someone is born with, and thus not their fault?

It’s now understood that addiction isn’t a moral failing, but a chronic disease that requires lifelong management. By the time the individual is undergoing detox and withdrawal, the addicted brain is so altered that it’s harder for them to resist the impulses to use addictive substances.

People who suffer from addiction aren’t weak. This is especially true for those who are addicted while also coping with a mental illness, often because they’re more inclined to use addictive substances overall. This is for a variety of reasons:

People with mental illness often use addictive substances to manage their emotions or maintain a sense of control. Addiction can result because the person wants the changes to their brain that occur when they use the substance. If someone is suffering from untreated anxiety, they may use cannabis regularly to ease their symptoms enough to relax. A person with depression may find that alcohol “brings them up” enough that they feel at ease in social situations.

The first is genetics — if your parents suffered from addiction, that raises your chances of addiction by 40-60%. Mental illness works much the same way. Inheritability doesn’t mean that you’re “doomed” to have an addiction, but that you may have extra sensitivity to certain substances. It’s also possible that mental illnesses may have been harder to identify in your family members because there was frequent self-medication.

People who grow up in difficult circumstances, such as in abusive environments or a constant state of neglect, are much more likely to turn to substances as adults to cope with lingering trauma. Unresolved feelings from past experiences may feel overwhelming. Substances can also be a way of coping with mental illness that may have resulted from the trauma that occurred, such as depression or C-PTSD.

People who use substances as teenagers are much more likely to become addicted as adults, especially if there is a prolonged pattern of use. They may not even realize they’re building up a tolerance thanks to their prolonged use. As a result, they may not realize how dependent they are on the substance for the regulation of their brain’s functions.

If someone doesn’t know they have a mental illness or haven’t been formally diagnosed, they may not even know that they can feel the same relief with the use of medication. Emotions and daily situations that may be straightforward for neurotypical people may feel very overwhelming. Instead of seeking professional help, they may internalize their “problems” and feel the need to indulge in substances to cope. 

Does Mental Illness Cause Addiction?

woman sitting in therapist's office talking about mental health

In some cases, mental illness can be brought on by addiction. This is highly dependent on the addictive substance. For example, depression may be caused by chronic alcoholism due to alcohol’s depressive aspects. This is part of the reason why alcohol detox is so dangerous and should not be completed alone.

The psychological causes of addiction can be manifold, but a lot of them correlate to other types of mental illness. For example, if a person is prone to anxiety due to traumatic combat experiences, they may turn to a substance to cope with that anxiety. However, withdrawals from the substance may cause newfound feelings of anxiety.

It’s very easy to get caught in a cycle of substance abuse that all started from self-medication. But the initial problem has been made much worse, without providing a lasting solution.

Can Addiction Affect Mental Health?

The impact of addiction can depend on where a person falls in the stages of addiction. But for people in treatment for a mental illness (or who may not be aware that they have a mental illness), adverse effects can linger and prevent treatment efforts from being truly effective.

Not everyone may use a substance again after their initial use. But if they’re using a substance once a week or more, they may develop a tolerance and require more of it to get the same effect they experienced the first time.

The answer all comes down to dopamine, a very important chemical in the human brain. This is the chemical that floods your brain whenever you’re feeling acute happiness or pleasure. Addictive substances deliver dopamine to the body in a fairly immediate and fast-acting way, much faster than other activities (such as exercise) that provide similarly pleasurable brain activity.

How Addiction Impacts Mental Illnesses

It makes sense on a biological level why someone would crave an addictive substance that offers a rush of dopamine. But if a person is already living with a mental illness, addiction can alter their brain chemistry or actively sabotage their journey to find the right treatments for themselves. They may not know all their relapse triggers, thus making them more susceptible to using their addictive substance of choice or even finding new ones.

Here are some ways in which addiction can aggravate or worsen a person’s mental illness:

Dopamine is responsible for the happy feelings you experience when eating delicious food or spending time with people you care about. When someone tries a drug like cocaine or Adderall, the brain is flooded with four (or even ten!) times the amount of dopamine a person might otherwise experience. The addictive substance can quickly become the person’s sole source of pleasure.

Quality of life is drastically affected by addiction, and mental health is no exception. It’s common for many everyday activities (such as hygiene) to fall by the wayside as the addiction consumes more of the person’s time and focus. But there are many activities that people shouldn’t skip if they want to maintain balanced mental health, including connecting with loved ones and eating nutritious food. Addiction can block the drive to pursue activities and coping mechanisms that are good for the body and mind as a whole.

As part of the brain’s built-in reward system, dopamine helps you learn what behaviors/activities to avoid. When you cope with stress or sadness in a healthy way, such as helping someone else, dopamine helps you to feel the benefits of that choice. You’re learning through having the good feeling. But the dopamine rush that comes as a result of an addictive substance is multiplied by three or even up to ten times the natural amount. Your brain isn’t learning what best helps it heal — or seeing the harm the substance may be doing to your body.

Addiction can lead a person to prioritize their substance of choice above everything else in their life, especially maintaining personal relationships. This can be very harmful for those living with mental illness. They may disconnect from people who encourage them to go to appointments, take medication, or perform similar activities that help them manage their lives. If they’re only associating with people who are also addicted, they may be learning the wrong lessons about how to cope.

Treatment for Addiction and Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Individuals who struggle with substance abuse may also be dealing with a mental health disorder at the same time. This is known as a co-occurring disorder, and it can make recovery even more challenging. However, dual-diagnosis treatment programs offer several advantages for those who are facing this complex problem.

These programs address both the addiction and the mental health issue simultaneously, providing individuals with the help and support they need to fully recover. Many experts believe that addiction is, in fact, a mental illness, and treating it as such can lead to more successful outcomes for those struggling with substance abuse. With a dual-diagnosis treatment program, individuals can receive the comprehensive care and treatment they need to overcome co-occurring disorders.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment at Agape Detox in FL

doctor holding dual diagnosis patient's hand

To effectively treat addiction, it’s necessary to take into account any existing mental illnesses. Dual diagnosis treatment is designed specifically to take existing mental illness into account, so self-medication cycles don’t continue.

If you or one of your loved ones are suffering from addiction and you’re looking for support in a medically safe environment, you’ve come to the right place. Contact us at Agape Detox Center and start your journey toward better health and wellness today!

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