Mental Disorders: An Underlying Problem to Substance Use

Article contributed by Rylee Kate Bexley

Mental illness and substance use are an ongoing public health priority in the United States, as they can sometimes be co-occurring disorders. The results of the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that around 5.7 million adults aged 18 and older had both serious mental illness and a substance use disorder, and these are just the reported numbers.

The relationship between mental illness and substance use is complex and cannot be explained by mere causation. It requires a closer examination of the common risk factors between both, and how one can contribute to the other.

The link between mental disorders and substance use

Mental disorders are disturbances in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior, causing distress and impairment of personal functioning. Substance use, on the other hand, refers to the use of cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. It becomes a disorder if substances are used recurrently, to the extent that they harm the individual’s health and their behavior at home, work, or school.

One of the ways that the link between mental disorders and substance use can be understood is through their shared risk factors. While they require different types of assessment and diagnosis, both mental and substance use disorders can be caused by genetic predisposition, or environmental triggers like exposure to stress and traumatic events.

Our previous post on how trauma feeds into addiction can also explain why individuals with mental disorders can be vulnerable to using substances. Care services and treatment can usually be inaccessible, which causes some people to turn to substance use in order to cope or self-medicate. Conversely, repeated substance use can alter the brain composition and its functions, making the development of mental health problems more likely.

The call for a systems approach

People with mental disorders are disadvantaged even in justice settings. The stigma against mental illness and substance abuse persists with the misconception that these disorders have a direct link with violence and aggression. As a result, of the 44% people in jail and 37% in state or federal prison diagnosed with mental illnesses, only those who are most prone to violence receive treatment. When people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders are left untreated, their conditions worsen while incarcerated. Having a treatment and recovery plan before and after being released can decrease the likelihood of repeated offenses.

A systems approach begins with eliminating the prevailing stigma against people with mental disorders. There thus needs to be a shift in the public discourse towards understanding mental illness not as a moral failing, but as a health problem.

Within our health systems, there needs to be increased access to treatment and care services for mentally ill individuals. Rather than treating addiction treatment as separate from the rest of the health system, the American Medical Association explains how the stigma against people with substance use disorders can be alleviated by the integration of behavioral health with primary care services, as well as other social frameworks and safety nets.

Avenues for healing and recovery

Recovery from mental disorders and substance use, especially when these are co-occurring disorders, is rarely straightforward. It’s crucial to identify the root causes—whether the disorders stem from biological, psychological, or environmental factors.

Here at Bridging the Gap, we value finding an individualized plan of treatment that aligns with specific needs in the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. We also promote holistic healing. On top of behavioral changes and psychosocial tools, we aim to heal the brain and body from the physical effects of substance use or addiction through a nutrition and exercise plan.

Lastly, involving the family and community in the process is vital to ensuring progress and long-term recovery. We expand the support systems of individuals in recovery by offering follow-up outpatient care and family education programs.

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