When we’re mentally healthy, we’re able to (mostly) cope with all the difficulties that life throws our way — from job stress to a health crisis to the loss of a loved one. Mental health means we can also work productively, contribute to our community and feel good about our own unique abilities. Together, these are the criteria that the World Health Organization uses to define mental health.
Sometimes, of course, things go very wrong, and over time we simply aren’t able to cope or be productive or have a strong sense of self-esteem. A mental illness is a medical condition that has a negative impact on a person’s thoughts, feelings, mood and ability to relate to others and handle everyday demands, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). One in four U.S. adults – or about 61.5 million Americans – experience mental illness in a given year, according to statistics from NAMI. About one in 17 suffer from serious mental illness, meaning the condition limits or impedes daily activities, like going to work.
Common Mental Health Problems
There are a wide variety of mental illnesses. Below are some of the most common ones:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Avoidant Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Dependent Personality Disorder
- Histrionic Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
- Paranoid Personality Disorder
- Schizoid Personality Disorder
- Schizotypal Personality Disorder
The Addiction Connection
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of overlap between addiction and mental disorders. If you or someone you love suffers from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or an eating disorder, addiction is much likelier to become a problem. Nearly one-third of people with a mental disorder and one-half of people with severe mental disorder such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia also struggle with substance abuse disorder (SUD), according to the NAMI. The connection works the other way too: As many as six in 10 substance abusers also have at least one other mental disorder. Problem gamblers, for instance, are more likely to suffer from chronic depression and anxiety.
There’s even a term for this complicated connection: co-occurring disorders, which is defined as having an addiction(s) and a mental disorder(s); this can also be called a dual diagnosis or co-morbid disorder. Co-occurring conditions are increasingly common in the U.S., affecting nearly 8.4 million adults, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Warning signs of co-occurring disorders include symptoms of both a mental illness and an addiction. Check out Symptoms in Mental Health 101 for a full list of the potential signs.
It’s not at all clear which typically comes first: Does an addiction raise the odds of becoming, say, depressed or anxious? Or does having depression or another mental issue make it more likely someone will turn to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or a behavioral addiction like compulsive gambling or shopping to feel better? What we do know from research is that the two are intricately linked. Abusing drugs can bring on symptoms of another mental illness; for example, alcoholics may raise their risk of becoming depressed because alcohol is partly a depressant and can alter brain chemistry. And someone with a mental illness may choose to compulsively “self-medicate” with an addictive substance or behavior. A person with bipolar disorder, for instance, might try to smooth out mood swings with alcohol, or use compulsive gambling or shopping to lift their spirits during a depressive episode. Drinking, smoking and drugging can also mask symptoms of anxiety and depression.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, people with a mental illness consume roughly 38 percent of all alcohol, 44 percent of all cocaine and 40 percent of all cigarettes. Which means, of course, that those dealing with a mental issue are taking in much more of these substances, likely in an attempt to ease their hurt. But self-medicating can’t offer lasting relief, and in some cases it will lead to a dangerous cycle. In fact, substance abuse has been shown to worsen symptoms of a mental illness; for example, as mentioned above, alcohol can deepen depression, even leading someone who’s intoxicated to become suicidal. Similarly, a heroin addict coping with an anxiety disorder may experience more frequent and severe panic attacks when they’re craving the drug but can’t get it.
Treating Both Problems
Treatment can also be difficult to manage in someone who’s received a dual diagnosis of a mental issue and an addiction. Both, after all, still carry a stigma, which is known to stop those who really need help from getting it. Studies show, too, that people with co-occurring disorders are less likely to follow their treatment plan, which can lead to more psychiatric hospitalizations, attempted suicides and other complications. While mental illness and addiction have traditionally been treated separately, today experts are taking an integrated approach, which means that therapy will combine treatment for both the mental illness and the addiction concurrently. Visit the section on Treatment to learn more about specific treatment options.
There’s no denying that the road to recovery can be difficult and long – after all, you or your loved one is learning how to cope with not one but multiple disorders – but remember that recovering and feeling better, while not easy, is absolutely possible. With the right treatment team and support network, you or the person you love can get the necessary help. The first step: Reach out to a health care professional, addiction specialist or psychotherapist who can evaluate symptoms, make a proper diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.