The relationship between mental health disorders and substance abuse is bi-directional, meaning that people who live with a mental illness are more likely to have a substance use disorder and vice versa. Symptoms of mental health disorders may lead some people to drink or misuse drugs as a method of improving their mood or escaping feelings of guilt or misery. While substances may provide temporary relief, most have a rebound effect that can escalate feelings of sadness or lethargy once an individual stops taking them. This habit of self-medicating can become a vicious cycle, hindering someone’s ability to obtain successful treatment for their mental health condition.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Mental Illness

Drinking or using illicit drugs may lead an individual to believe that they are improving their symptoms; instead, they are creating more, harsher symptoms in the long run. Mental illness and substance abuse feed into each other, and one condition will often make the other condition worse.

Mental health disorders pose many health risks, including accidental injury, self-harm and suppressed the immune system, making people more susceptible to physical illness. When a person with a mental health condition uses drugs or alcohol, the risks to their physical and emotional health increase exponentially.

Alcohol and Mental Illness

Alcohol may relax the body and relieve stress in the short term, but its aftereffects can be detrimental to an individual’s brain chemistry. There is a strong link between severe alcohol use and mental illness. People who drink excessively have more frequent and severe occurrences of their symptoms and are more likely to contemplate suicide. Heavy alcohol use also can also hinder the effectiveness of prescribed medications for mental health conditions.

Marijuana and Mental Illness

Marijuana, though known for its calming effects, may also create more of a problem for people with pre-existing mental illnesses. Marijuana produces chemical compounds that work on the brain to affect motor control, cognition, emotions and behavior. Introducing marijuana into the system may help restore normal levels and functions and temporarily ease symptoms of mental illness. However, after the high subsides, the individual may experience more severe mental health symptoms, which can lead them to consume more marijuana. Marijuana use, especially heavy use, has been linked with occurrences of anxiety and depression.

Stimulants and Mental Health

Like marijuana, stimulants are known to increase symptoms of mental illness. Since many people who have a mental illness also have histories of trauma, stimulant use can activate complex reactions, including increased cravings for stimulants

Stimulants often cause people to be happier and more energetic. Once the effects of these medications wear off, the individual either feels down again or uses more stimulants to re-experience the stimulant’s pleasurable effects. This cycle can lead to addiction, interfere with the individual’s personal life, and keep them from getting the proper treatment needed to recover completely.

Statistics and Research on Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders are fairly common. Individuals living with a substance use disorder are about twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of a mental health disorder. Similarly, half of all people living with a mental health disorder develop a substance abuse problem.

Can Mental Illness Cause Drug Addiction?

While it’s not clear that alcohol or drug use can cause other mental health conditions, they can change the chemical balance in the brain and exacerbate the symptoms of pre-existing mental health disorders. If a mental health specialist does not diagnose and treat a mental illness quickly, the mental illness can lead to increased alcohol and drug use.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Options for Co-Occurring Disorders

As with all co-occurring disorders, substance misuse and mental health disorders can complicate each other. If a person only treats an addiction, it is likely that a recurrence of use will occur when mental illness symptoms return. Also, if a patient only treats their mental illness, their substance misuse disorder will most likely cause the illness to return.

People with mental health disorder symptoms need to seek treatment for both issues simultaneously to promote long-term recovery. A dual diagnosis treatment plan that focuses on co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders may allow the patient to find relief from both conditions

If you or a loved one is living with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorder, The Recovery Village can help. Individuals who have mental health disorder symptoms can receive comprehensive treatment from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.


National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses.” August 2018.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Mental Illness and Substance Abuse
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