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The Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction

Like in every part of the world, mental illness and addiction is a looming health crisis in our country. 

A Canadian health survey in 2012 revealed that approximately 2.8 million Canadians or 10.1% of the population reported symptoms consistent with at least one of six mental or substance use disorders. These numbers continue to soar each day, with 1 in 5 Canadians suffering from any form of mental illness or addiction problem at any given year. 

Mental Illness and Addiction Have Common Risk Factors

The Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders Research Report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that overlapping factors cause substance use and mental health disorders. The most significant of them all would arguably be a genetic vulnerability.

Genetic factors are primary drivers for countless chronic diseases, and substance use and mental health disorders are no exception. Research has shown that drug addiction is mainly 50 to 60 percent due to genetics. On the other hand, psychiatric disorders running in families like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia, have long established their potential genetic roots. 

“Our research shows that if someone is genetically predisposed towards having a mental illness, they are also prone to use licit and illicit substances and develop problematic usage patterns,” explains Caitlin E. Carey, a Ph.D. student in the BRAINlab at Washington University in St. Louis.

Their study, which was published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Genetics, discovered a genetic risk for schizophrenia and depression linked with cannabis and cocaine addiction, among others. 

“This is important because if a mental illness, like depression, runs in your family, you are presumed at risk of that disorder. But we find that having a genetic predisposition to mental illness also places that person at risk for substance use and addiction,” she continues. 

Aside from genetic vulnerability, other common risk factors for mental illness and addiction include epigenetic influences, similar brain region involvement, environmental influences, stress, and childhood trauma. 

Woman sitting on the floor, distressed

Individuals with Mental Illness Set Up for Addiction

Mental illness and addiction are both chronic brain diseases. When a person develops a mental health disorder, the brain is rewired to increase vulnerability for drug dependency or substance abuse. It’s because it brings them to a euphoric state, eases the painful or unpleasant symptoms of their mental disorder or the side effects of their medications while diminishing their awareness about its adverse consequences.

For instance, in the neuroimaging of individuals with ADHD, it was found that the neurobiological changes in the brain circuits are correlated with drug cravings, offering explanations as to why those with substance use disorder have stronger cravings when they also have pre-existing ADHD.

Secondly, individuals with mild, severe, or subclinical mental illness also have a heightened risk of developing substance abuse disorder because they tended to self-medicate and use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco to alleviate their symptoms. However, studies show that the effects are temporary, if any, and exacerbate the symptoms acutely. For instance, experts have found that cocaine addiction may worsen bipolar disorder symptoms and lead to the swift progression of the illness. 

Substance Abuse Can Induce Mental Disorders

Based on research, chronic substance abuse alters the brain areas that are also affected in some types of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, mood or impulse control disorders. It brings short-term and long-term effects in the brain’s structure and function that can trigger an inherent predisposition to developing a type of mental illness. 

Researchers have also looked into nine (9) substance-induced disorders similar to those experienced by individuals with mental illness. 

Substance-Induced Delirium 

A person with substance-induced delirium exhibits abnormal and unpredictable shifts in mental state due to drug intoxication. They go through a rollercoaster of emotions, from confusion, anxiety, euphoria, agitation, irritability, and anger. There is also a possibility of short-term amnesia, inability to control physical movements and to string sentences coherently. Substance-induced delirium can be triggered by the following: 

  • Alcohol
  • PCP
  • Amphetamines
  • Opioids
  • Inhalants
  • Sedatives
  • Hallucinogens
  • Cocaine
  • Anti-anxiety medication

Substance-Induced Persisting Dementia 

Medical News Today refers to dementia as “a general term to describe symptoms of impairment in memory, communication, and thinking.” It is a condition typically associated with old age characterized by lapses in short-term and long-term memory, disorientation, personality changes, mood swings, struggle to complete familiar tasks (cooking or taking a bath), and speech difficulties. 

Alcohol abuse has long been established as a risk factor in the early onset of dementia and cognitive decline due to its lasting and detrimental effects on the brain. Unfortunately, the devastating effects of alcoholism, like substance-induced persisting dementia, can be irreversible even with sobriety. 

Substance-Induced Persisting Amnestic Disorder 

Another manifestation of severe brain damage caused by long-term alcohol abuse is substance-induced persisting amnestic disorder, which is also called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain. Its symptoms include gaps in long-term and short-term memory, confabulation or fabrication of stories, and denial or unawareness of apparent loss of memory.

A 2016 study that looked into individuals with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome indicates that other behavioural issues can also occur with an alcoholic amnestic disorder, including aggression, agitation, and depression.

Substance-Induced Psychotic Disorder 

Substance-induced psychosis can be triggered by drug or alcohol abuse or withdrawal. The patient suffers from delusions, hallucinations, or detachment from reality, which can last for months up to years, especially in individuals struggling with long-term addiction. This condition can be a result of exposure to cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines, cannabis, or opioids.

Substance-Induced Mood Disorder 

Sometimes, people resort to drinking alcohol or experimenting with illicit drugs to make them feel better emotionally. On the contrary, substance abuse can do the opposite. 

A substance-induced mood disorder is a type of depression triggered by alcohol or other addictive medications and substances. The depressive state can occur while the person is in a state of high or intoxication and as a withdrawal symptom from a drug detox

To make a definitive diagnosis, doctors are very particular with the patient’s medical history to rule out that there is no present case of depression before the substance abuse. There’s a whole gamut of psychoactive substances known to cause substance-induced depression, including:

  • Alcohol-induced depressive disorder
  • Phencyclidine-induced depressive disorder
  • Hallucinogen-induced depressive disorder
  • Inhalant-induced depressive disorder
  • Opioid-induced depressive disorder
  • Sedative-induced depressive disorder
  • Hypnotic-induced depressive disorder
  • Anxiolytic-induced depressive disorder
  • Amphetamine-induced depressive disorder
  • Other stimulant-induced depressive disorder
  • Cocaine-induced depressive disorder

Addiction to types of prescription drugs has also been identified to cause medication-induced depression, such as corticosteroids, chemotherapeutic drugs, and antibiotics. 

A depressed man in the dining area

Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder 

Anxiety is perhaps one of the most common symptoms shared by mental illness and addiction. In substance-induced anxiety, the person experiences unstoppable nervousness, restlessness, or panic triggered by taking or abruptly stopping substance abuse. It is common to come with chills, hot flashes, excessive sweating, night sweats, shaking, numbness, palpitations, loss of appetite, and difficulty breathing. Substance-induced anxiety effects occur while the substance is in effect and can last several days after you stop taking it. 

What substances can cause symptoms of anxiety? 

  • Alcohol 
  • Caffeine
  • Illicit drugs like cocaine and LSD
  • Over-the-counter drugs like decongestants
  • Steroid-based prescription drugs 

Hallucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder 

Hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder (HPPD) experiences visual disturbances wherein they see halos, auras, or trails around objects. They may also have distorted colour perception and see inanimate objects moving. HPPD symptoms can be a cause of distress and anxiety. Based on a 2013 study, this substance-induced disorder was most commonly reported after using LSD. 

Substance-Induced Sexual Dysfunction 

While this is a common side effect among prescription drugs, evidence suggests that substances of abuse like marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol can also mess up with an individual’s sexual interest and performance. Symptoms of substance-induced sexual dysfunction may include reduced libido, inability to maintain an erection for males, and struggle to achieve an orgasm for females. 

Recovering From Mental Illness and Addiction

As a case of dual diagnosis, patients dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues should be given holistic alcohol or drug addiction treatment plans with integrative therapies that effectively address both conditions.

Freedom From Addiction offers an extensive range of treatment programs that delves into mental health problems, such as anger management and cognitive behavioural therapies, to improve their coping skills without turning to drugs or alcohol. To know more about how we can help you or a loved one, please don’t hesitate to contact us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.

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