Learn about addiction and mental issues for Mental Health Awareness Month

May 7, 2014

For decades, drug and alcohol addiction was not categorized as a medical condition that required specialized treatment. Rehab centers still provided those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse with the care they needed, but the medical establishment continued to deny the fact that substance abuse is a condition that very often cannot be conquered alone. Mental illnesses were miscategorized in much the same way for years, but more accurate research and advancing medical science have prompted better treatment for those in need of help.

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and the American Psychological Association has placed a particular emphasis this year on the relationship between mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, almost 46 percent of all people with serious mental health issues also abuse drugs and alcohol. Additionally, 37 percent of those who abuse alcohol and 53 percent of those who abuse drugs also exhibit symptoms of at least one other mental health condition.

While it may be uncomfortable for many people to discuss these issues, understanding how the two conditions interact and build off of each other may help those with histories of substance abuse, their families and their friends all gain a better picture of how drug and alcohol addictions work.

Co-occurring disorders complicate substance abuse issues

In many patients, the precise cause of drug or alcohol abuse is difficult, if impossible, to determine. This can be caused by a number of different factors, but some people struggling with substance abuse also exhibit some traits of a mental health disorder.

Mental illness and alcoholism or drug abuse interact in a complex dance,” James Garbutt, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, told Everyday Health magazine. “Mental illnesses can increase the risk for alcoholism or drug abuse, sometimes because of self-medicating. On the other hand, alcoholism can lead to significant anxiety and depression that may appear indistinguishable from a mental illness. Finally, one disorder can be worse than the other.”

As Garbutt explained, mental health issues may be difficult to uncover if a person has been abusing drugs or alcohol to avoid experiencing symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or schizophrenia. Though substance abuse may provide short-term relief for some conditions, it can very often exacerbate symptoms if the person continues to self-medicate without receiving proper treatment. In cases where people have a family history of mental illness, excessive alcohol and drug use may even increase the risk of these potential underlying conditions developing into actively problematic syndromes.

Increasing treatment options for mental health issues

Though substance abuse and mental illnesses may be strongly linked, both conditions require separate treatments. While addiction treatment centers have experienced counselors and therapists to help those working toward recovery understand their own emotional states, a more comprehensive network of mental health services is needed to treat the ever-growing population of affected individuals.

This is what the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is attempting to do, according to U.S. News & World Report. As the specifics of the law continue to go into effect, mental health treatment is now included as one of the 10 essential medical benefits that every insurance policy must offer within the U.S.

“Last year, we had 32,000 covered lives,” Robin Henderson, psychologist and chief behavior health officer at the Oregon-based St. Charles Health System, told the news source. “By March 1, 2014, that number had increased by 14,000. People who have coverage now and didn’t before the Medicaid expansion are able to get care without showing up at the emergency room.”

With greater access to mental health services, patients who experience conditions in conjunction with substance abuse may have greater chances to control their self-destructive habits. By increasing support for mental illnesses, addiction services may experience an inadvertent boost as well.

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