Mental Health and Substance Abuse

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By: Jeffrey Meyers, ASAC Certified Prevention Specialist

Mental health awareness should also highlight link to substance abuse

Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month, an initiative undertaken by the Mental Health America organization to educate on and highlight the issue of mental health challenges. A recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a mental health condition. The specific issues themselves can range a great deal, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. That  same report also found that about 4% of Americans have what can be considered a “serious mental illness”, in that their ability to function in everyday activities, like work or school, are impaired. Clearly mental health is a subject that deserves heightened attention, and can be looked at in many different ways. One linkage that can be overlooked, but is very relevant, is the role of substance abuse in exacerbating or even triggering mental illness.

It is not at all uncommon for an individual to have both a mental health condition and a substance use disorder simultaneously, which are often referred to as co-occurring disorders. In fact, a 2014 SAMHSA report found co-occurring disorders to be present in nearly 8 million adult Americans. The reasons why these two disorders often occur together are varied and complex. One significant factor is that mental illness itself can lead to drug abuse as a form of self-medication, abusing substances as a way to deal with the effects of their condition. This self-medication, of course, fails to address the underlying mental health issue and risks creating more problems for the individual, such as addiction. At the same time, we also know that certain factors can increase the likelihood of a substance disorder or mental health condition occurring within an individual, and many of these factors can overlap, such as early exposure to trauma, stress, and genetic predisposition.

While mental illness can be a trigger for substance use via self-medication, there is increasing attention on how substance use can act as a sort of catalyst for mental health conditions. This is especially true of marijuana, with many studies associating long-term use with an increase incidence for psychosis, though rare. Impairment effects of substance abuse can also lead to strained relationships, legal troubles, and significant health challenges to where conditions like anxiety or depression may occur or be worsened.

Heightened awareness between the undeniable relationship of substance abuse and mental health concerns is an important first step in addressing the issue. Also important is the need to take the stigma away from both conditions. Treatment is possible, and the more we are able to recognize this, the easier it will be for those with mental health and substance use challenges to seek help and recover. For this reason, let’s have this mental health awareness month not only be a time for education, but also a time for encouragement and support.


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