What Is the Link Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse?


Many individuals that experience addiction to alcohol or other drugs have experienced or will experience a co-occurring mental health diagnosis in their lifetime. Although there is a high prevalence of comorbidity between addiction and mental health disorders, this does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. Many factors contribute to the link between mental health and substance abuse. Recognizing risk factors and causes of mental health disorders and substance use disorders is crucial to understanding the connection between the two. 

Mental Health Disorders: Causes and Risk Factors

Mental health disorders are health conditions that involve changes in emotion, thinking, and behavior. They are associated with problems in brain functioning that affect social, work, and personal activities. It is important to note that mental health disorders are medical conditions that can be treated. They range in severity, as some are mild and only interfere with limited functioning, while others interfere with maximum daily functioning.

Mental health disorders develop through many factors. Mental health disorders occur from the interaction of genes and other factors that may influence or trigger a condition in a person that is already susceptible to developing it.  Contributing causes to the development of a mental health disorder include:

  • Genetic vulnerabilities (history of mental illness in blood relative)
  • Environmental factors pre-birth (exposure to stressors, toxins, alcohol or other drugs, etc.)
  • Brain chemistry (impaired neural networks)

While these are the main genetic and environmental factors that contribute to mental health disorders, many risk factors can also increase one’s susceptibility to developing a mental health disorder. These include: 

  • Stressful life situations or traumatic experiences
  • Chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes)
  • Brain damage from a severe injury 
  • Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • History of childhood abuse or neglect
  • Previous mental health diagnosis

Substance Abuse: Causes and Risk Factors

Substance use disorder is a condition where an individual uses alcohol or other substances despite their harmful consequences. Severe SUDs are sometimes referred to as addiction. People with SUD have an intense focus on using alcohol or other drugs and use them to the point where their ability to function in daily life becomes impaired. People who experience SUD may have distortions in thinking and behaviors caused by changes in the brain structure. The exact causes of SUD are unknown, although contributing causes are similar to mental health disorders. Risk factors include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Other emotional distress
  • Early exposure to drugs
  • Parental guidance
  • Peer Pressure
  • Stressful or chaotic lifestyle
  • Low self-esteem

How One Condition Can Impact Another

Risk factors for mental health disorders and substance abuse are very similar, which may cause one to develop in the presence of another. A good example of this would be alcoholism in someone that has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Consuming alcohol makes the anxious individual more calm and able to navigate social situations better. However, as they continue to drink, their anxiety worsens, and the need to consume more alcohol to achieve the same effects arises. When this occurs, the person can develop a co-occurring mental health and substance use disorder. 

While drugs and alcohol seem to be the quicker, easier access to relieving mental health symptoms, individuals will experience detrimental issues with their health long-term. One condition can impact another through susceptibility and other developmental factors. The most important thing to address here is while substance abuse does not exist without mental health, mental health can exist without substance use. 

Substance Abuse and Self-Medication

Most people abuse substances for recreational purposes but cling to the feeling after continuous use. Most individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders are hyper-aware of this feeling, causing them to crave to feel better. Mental illness and substance abuse tend to co-occur when a person attempts to self-medicate. An individual with a mental health disorder may self-medicate in an attempt to subside the symptoms of their diagnosis, which is where substance abuse would take effect. Once individuals find a substance that temporarily fixes or alleviates negative symptoms, they become significantly vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder. 

Dual Diagnosis and Getting Treatment

Dual diagnosis refers to an individual having a co-occurring diagnosis, representing mental health disorders and substance use disorder. While both need to be treated simultaneously, there need to be individualized treatment options that fit the specialized needs of each condition. Interaction of two disorders can make the rehabilitation and recovery process more complex, which may require greater intensity of care. Dual diagnosis is not uncommon, and it should be a priority to seek treatment or other resources that can provide tools for overcoming both mental health disorders and substance use disorders. 

Mental health disorders and substance use disorders are often experienced together, which may make treatment more complex. While these conditions are different, many similar risk factors contribute to the development of each. Substance use disorders and mental health disorders can also co-occur through trials with self-medication, which inevitably is more detrimental to the health of an individual. When considering dual-diagnosis and the link between these conditions, it is essential to seek individualized treatment that focuses on treating both conditions together. At Casa Recovery, we provide effective and accessible rehabilitation programs for substance abuse and mental health. Individualized treatment programs are necessary to address the personal needs and challenges of each person. At Casa Recovery, we are a family-focused, collaborative treatment program that is committed to clinical excellence and quality care. For more information about the resources we offer, please give us a call at (888) 928-2272. Healing begins with Casa Recovery.

Table of Contents