The Link Between Addiction and Mental Health

ProMedica and Harbor present Hooked on Heroin, a weekly, three-part series exposing heroin and opioid addiction in Ohio and Michigan. Throughout the series, we’ll address how addiction starts, challenges with mental health and addiction and how agencies are addressing the crisis in our communities.

Addiction is far reaching. It knows no boundaries, and doesn’t discriminate based on gender, age or socioeconomic status. When other mental illnesses are at play, its grip becomes even more challenging.

But is addiction considered a mental illness?

“Yes, addiction is a disease and falls under the realm of mental illness,” says Theresa Butler, executive Director of Clinical Services at Harbor. “Substance use can change the brain in such a way that the use is actually a disease. There are diagnostic criteria used to determine if substance use has reached the point of addiction.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates nearly one third of people with a mental illness also experience substance abuse. There isn’t one disease that makes an individual more prone than others, and Harbor professionals stress having a chronic mental health problem puts any individual at a greater risk. What’s troubling is the way some arrive at addiction.

“People will often turn to drugs before they will turn towards treatment,” explains Butler. “I’ve seen it a lot with young folks. They’re hearing voices or having other mental health difficulties, so they’ll turn to marijuana or alcohol to try to manage those symptoms.”

Rather than using a prescription under the watchful eye of a medical professional, users experience their short-term desired results with drugs or alcohol—often with long-term, devastating consequences.

“Most people will say they feel relaxed, calm, somewhat sedated, a sense of wellbeing, euphoric,” explains Butler. “A lot of times people who are addicted will say it gives you energy, which is unique because it’s a central nervous system depressant, and without it they may have withdrawal symptoms.”

Unfortunately, abuse of the substance doesn’t treat the underlying condition. Self-medication and unhealthy coping mechanisms, even for those dealing with episodes of stress or grief, can open the door to other risky behaviors.

“Alcohol is legal and acceptable and people often don’t see the danger,” says Butler. “How many people do you know will say, ‘I can’t wait to get a drink tonight after work’? People naturally, because of the way our society is, look to alcohol because it’s seen as a stress reliever. Other people will look to drugs and alcohol.”

Drug abuse and mental illness also poses complex hurdles for individuals seeking treatment. According to NAMI, patients are less likely to attend appointments, follow medication instructions and follow through with treatment plans. Finding ways to help patients in this key category is challenging, especially as heroin and opioid deaths continue to increase, but Butler says there is hope for advancement.

“Our field is constantly developing, which is a good thing. Over the last decade, there have been great advances in mental health treatment and care, and addiction is now recognized as a disease. As science allows us to learn more about these illnesses, things will continue to improve and new opportunities and treatment options will further advance recovery.”

If you or a loved one needs help with addiction and for a list of services, visit Harbor’s website.