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Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

Addiction and Self Medicating

Table of Contents

A high percentage of people who suffer from mental health disorders develop substance use disorders as well. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 9.2 million adults in the United States suffer from mental illness alongside addiction. 

Suffering from both conditions simultaneously dramatically increases the harms and consequences of both conditions, and it also complicates the process of treating them. Understanding the relationship between mental health disorders and addictions is crucial to recovering from these devastating conditions.

In many ways, it can be difficult to determine which comes first, mental illness or addiction. This article will examine the ways that mental health conditions cause and exacerbate addictions, and how addiction can in turn worsen the symptoms of mental health conditions.

How Does Mental Illness Lead to Addiction?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one in five adults in the United States has a mental health disorder of some kind. In all likelihood, this number is actually far higher, given that many people lack the opportunity to get diagnosed. Individuals who suffer from mental health disorders, and especially those who have undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders, are significantly more likely to engage in patterns of substance abuse.

Common mental health disorders associated with addiction include:

Why do people with mental illness so frequently abuse drugs and alcohol? One of the primary reasons is self-medication. Self-medication refers to the practice of using drugs and alcohol to treat the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Individuals who are not receiving legitimate medical treatment for their mental illness are likely to suffer from painful and often debilitating symptoms. As a result, they are likely to turn to drugs and alcohol for the short term relief they provide.

Self-Medication Theory Of Addiction

Recreational drugs and alcohol can temporarily reduce feelings of emotional distress. When individuals with chronic mental health conditions learn that they can feel “normal” if they take drugs and alcohol, it is easy for them to lean on these substances as a crutch. In many cases, they develop a psychological dependence on these drugs that is far stronger than any physical dependence.

Reasons For Self-Medication

Mental health disorders can often influence people’s behavior in other important ways. Depression, for instance, can cause people to lose touch with their goals, and they may undervalue their lives. As a result, depressed individuals may knowingly engage in dangerous patterns of substance abuse as a form of self-harm. Many mental health conditions also affect impulse control and decision making. Individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to act on their compulsions, and research indicates that people with ADHD have a “reward deficiency.” This can cause them to crave the dopamine that alcohol and recreational drugs provide.

In particular, there is a strong link between trauma and addiction. In fact, aside from genetics, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are considered by many researchers to be one of the most important predictors of addiction. Adverse childhood experiences range from trauma to neglect. These traumatic experiences affect a person’s decision-making later in life. PTSD itself can drive people to abuse drugs and alcohol in order to block painful memories.

Prescription Drug Abuse

It is not only undiagnosed and untreated individuals who are at high risk of addiction. People who are receiving legitimate care for their mental health disorders are also prone to addiction. Part of this is because many prescription drugs are easily abused. Many of these drugs, when taken as prescribed, can be of great assistance. However, when they are abused they can rapidly lead to the development of physical dependence and addiction.

Benzodiazepines, for instance, are a class of prescription drugs used to treat anxiety disorders. Common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and clonazepam (Klonopin), among others. While these medications can indeed provide short term relief for anxiety disorders, when they are taken over an extended period of time or misused, addiction can develop. Withdrawing from benzodiazepines is extremely difficult and often life-threatening. Ironically, the withdrawal process can often lead to even worse anxiety symptoms, a phenomenon known as “rebound anxiety.” This can lead people right back to benzodiazepine abuse!

Prescription stimulants are also widely abused, especially among college students. These drugs include dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination products (Adderall), and methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta). When used as prescribed, they can alleviate the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), enabling people to function in their daily lives. 

However, many students abuse these drugs in order to improve their energy, focus, and cognitive abilities. While prescription stimulants do provide short-term cognitive benefits, over the long run they worsen cognitive abilities, especially when a person has reached a degree of physical dependence leading to withdrawal symptoms.

Prescription opioids, while generally prescribed for physical ailments like severe and chronic pain, are also often abused. While their intended effect is alleviating pain, opioids also produce intense euphoria. For individuals with untreated anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders, the euphoria that prescriptions opioids produce can offer short term relief. It is no surprise that even people with a legitimate need for opioids often abuse the drug to self-medicate for other conditions.

Does Addiction Cause Mental Illness?

The causal relationship between mental health disorders and substance use disorders goes in both directions. Not only does mental illness often drive people to abuse drugs and alcohol, but addiction can often produce or worsen symptoms of mental illness. When people experience withdrawal, they are likely to suffer mood problems, including depression and anxiety. In many cases, the actual experience of intoxication produces these symptoms. 

Prescription stimulants, for instance, can directly cause anxiety and panic attacks. Central nervous system (CNS) depressants like alcohol and benzodiazepines can cause feelings of depression when they are consumed. In fact, it is often difficult to distinguish between symptoms of mental illness and symptoms of intoxication or withdrawal.

However, the lifestyle consequences of addiction are often by far the most dangerous. The inherent instability in the cycle of craving and withdrawal that people experience during addiction is likely to lead to emotional instability. When people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, they are also far more likely to engage in dangerous and risky behaviors. 

For example, the majority of sexual assaults in college occur when people engage in binge drinking and drug abuse. This can lead to permanent trauma. When the consequences of addiction pile up, people can lose their relationships, their financial resources, and even their freedom. All of these consequences make people more susceptible to mental health conditions.

Treating Comorbid Addictions

Mental health disorders and substance use disorders are mutually reinforcing. No matter how diligently a person pursues addiction recovery, they are likely to relapse if symptoms of untreated mental illness flare up. Likewise, it is difficult to recover from depression or anxiety while continuing to abuse alcohol and drugs. For this reason, it is essential for dual diagnosis individuals to work toward recovering from both conditions at once. Quality outpatient treatment centers use an approach known as an integrated treatment, which works to provide people with the tools they need to manage both their substance use disorders and their mental health conditions.

NuView Treatment Center, an outpatient treatment program located in West Los Angeles, helps people recover from all manner of addictions. At NuView Treatment Center, we understand that addiction rarely occurs in a vacuum and that the vast majority are drawn to substance abuse due to underlying mental health conditions. 

Our trained and compassionate staff combine the latest evidence-based treatment modalities. Our individualized treatment plans are designed to provide individuals with the holistic, comprehensive care they need. Moreover, at NuView Treatment Center, clients work daily to rebuild their lives from the ground up.

If you or a loved one has been self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, you’re not alone. Reach out to NuView Treatment Center today and get the help you need. With proper outpatient alcohol treatment Los Angeles, you will stop needing self-medication. A joyous, prosperous, and free life is possible.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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