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Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

Addiction and mental illness share many intersecting aspects that almost blur the lines between the two conditions. For many struggling to overcome their addiction, they see substance use disorder as a mental illness that needs to be treated. Is this line of thinking correct? Continue reading to find out.

Addiction by Definition

The definition of addiction is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.” In modern scientific circles, addiction, otherwise called severe substance use disorder, is a complex and chronic brain disease characterized by:

  • Compulsively seeking illicit substance
  • An uncontrollable craving to abuse alcohol or psychoactive drugs
  • Inability to resist the urge to use substances despite knowing its devastating consequences and the disapproval of loved ones

Opening a bottle of beer inside the car

The Medical Field’s View of Mental Illness & Addiction

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines mental illness as a term that collectively refers to all diagnosable mental disorders that manifest severe changes in a person’s way of cognition, moods, emotions, and behavior. It also includes psychiatric disorders involving the inability to function in a socially acceptable manner.

U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse confirms that addiction is a mental illness, citing that brain imaging studies on individuals addicted to drugs reveal physical changes in the critical parts of the brain that regulate a person’s sense of judgment, impulse decision making, learning, and memory. It also affects the brain’s reward circuitry and impulse control.

Experts believe that these drastic changes in the brain explain why a person struggling with addiction exhibits compulsive and destructive behaviors. It has warped their way of thinking, feeling, and perceiving things in a way that’s totally incomprehensible to their friends and family. Their brain is rewired to trigger intense cravings for highly addictive substances, making it all the more difficult to quit the abuse on their own.

Another critical factor that supports this theory is that the same regions in the brain that are affected in people with substance use disorder are also disturbed in individuals dealing with psychiatric conditions like depression and schizophrenia. Studies have also established that several neurotransmitter systems are involved in addiction and mental illness, including dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, and norepinephrine receptors.

In the 1930s when scientists first began delving deeper into the study of addictive behaviours, people struggling with addiction were seen as “morally flawed and lacking in willpower.” These initial assumptions significantly influenced the stigmatization of addicts, treating it as a behavioural problem that requires stringent punishment rather than a medical one that needs healing and understanding. But thanks to continuous scientific work, clinicians and addiction recovery centres now recognize addiction as a medical disorder.

A woman in tears

Addiction & Mental Illness as Co-occurring Disorders

Currently, there’s a burgeoning awareness among clinicians and addiction recovery centres about co-occurring or concurrent disorders, otherwise known as dual diagnosis, which is a condition wherein the patient is struggling with addiction and mental illness at the same time. It covers a wide range of combinations. For example, a person can be diagnosed with a dual diagnosis if the clinician finds that he is suffering from cocaine addiction and underlying bipolar disorder or clinical depression.

People dealing with substance use disorder have a compounded risk of developing a mental illness at one point in their lifetime and vice-versa. Many mitigating factors contribute to the co-occurrence of addiction and mental illness, such as:

  • They share the same risk factors (i.e. genetics, family history, stress, and trauma).
  • People with mental illness can develop an addiction as they self-medicate to mask the symptoms of their condition.
  • Chronic substance use can affect different brain functions and create psychiatric disorders. Alcohol and cocaine are proven to cause substance-induced depression.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment in Addiction Recovery Centres

Addiction and mental illness as concurrent disorders demand a more comprehensive approach that will meticulously evaluate both and treated accordingly with equal priority. Experts recommend that addiction recovery centres implement integrative strategies involve psychiatric and behavioural therapies.

Successful dual diagnosis treatment should not only take on a holistic treatment approach but must also be customizable to accommodate the patient’s age, the specific substance of abuse, and other essential factors, for example, if the addiction involves a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Excellent examples of behavioural therapies that have been found useful in addressing addiction and mental illness include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – It is a kind of psychotherapy that focuses on how personal beliefs, thought patterns, and attitudes influence emotions and behaviour in everyday life. It educates the person on how to unlearn unhealthy, unhelpful, and harmful behaviours and ways of thinking that could have contributed to their addiction or mental illness.
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) – This behavioural therapy is primarily used to prevent self-harm tendencies, including suicidal thoughts and attempts. It identifies negative thinking patterns that trigger the desire to inflict harm on one’s self and replaces it with positive behaviours, such as mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, and healthy coping techniques.
  • Emotional Recovery Program – Emotions are powerful triggers that have led many people to addiction. Whether it’s getting to the root of their unresolved emotional trauma from a history of abuse or surfacing anxieties about transitioning back into society, our team is ready to support you with individual or group counselling therapies to heal and strengthen your emotional health.
  • Find Treatment Today

    Freedom From Addiction is one of the most innovative addiction recovery centres in Canada. We have inclusive and intensive treatments that deal with the comorbid conditions of addiction and mental illness.

    For more information on how we can make a difference in yours or a loved one’s life, contact Freedom From Addiction today!

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