The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Connection

By Kari Clark

Reader Contributor


Mental illness is common among those suffering from substance abuse. In fact, in 1992 Congress established the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to make substance use and mental disorder information, services, and research more accessible. Even with public agencies like SAHMSA, many people are not receiving the services and help they need across America, including Idaho. Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently she would make mental health and substance abuse treatment a “big part” of her campaign. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Clinton was quoted as saying, “This is a quiet epidemic, and it is striking in small towns and rural areas as much as any big city.”

A study published last year by SAHMSA showed that in Idaho, among individuals aged 12 or older with alcohol dependence or abuse, only 6.9 percent received treatment for their alcohol use, while only 10.6 percent received treatment for illicit drug use. That leaves a large amount of addicts without proper treatment, and many of those that suffer from substance abuse addictions also suffer from mental health disorders.

But what is the connection between mental health disorders and substance abuse? What can be done to combat the two? By far the most common issue connecting mental illness and substance abuse is self-medication. Certain people with mental health issues aim to medicate their mental health symptoms with alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol often do little to help and eventually create a new issues, while also increasing the severity of the original mental health symptoms.

Another common connection is when mental health issues trigger substance abuse, or vice versa. Mental health disorders are thought to be caused by different factors including genetics, environmental exposures before birth and/or brain chemistry. If you are at risk for a mental disorder, drug or alcohol abuse may push you over the edge. According to reports published in the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” roughly 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse, 37 percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness and of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29 percent abuse either alcohol or drugs.

What should be done for people who suffer from both disorders? It is important to have the person obtain treatment for both problems at the same time. Ignoring the symptoms of a mental health disorder can cause a person not to be able to remain clean and sober, while an untreated substance abuse issue could make the mental health treatment unsuccessful. Recovering from co-occurring disorders takes time, commitment and courage. It may take months or even years. However, people with substance abuse and mental health problems can and do get better

Treatment for dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders
•Helping you think about the role that alcohol and other drugs play in your life. This should be done confidentially, without any negative consequences. People feel free to discuss these issues when the discussion is confidential, nonjudgmental, and not tied to legal consequences.
•Offering you a chance to learn more about alcohol and drugs, to learn about how they interact with mental illnesses and with medications, and to discuss your own use of alcohol and drugs.
•Helping you become involved with supported employment and other services that may help your process of recovery.
•Helping you identify and develop your own recovery goals. If you decide that your use of alcohol or drugs may be a problem, a counselor trained in integrated dual diagnosis treatment can help you identify and develop your own recovery goals. This process includes learning about steps toward recovery from both illnesses.
•Providing special counseling specifically designed for people with dual diagnosis. This can be done individually, with a group of peers, with your family, or with a combination of these.


Kari Clark is the Executive Director of Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention in Sandpoint.

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