How Substance Abuse And Mental Health Issues Impact Each Other

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues
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At Pride Surveys, we work with community coalitions, parents, and education partners to deliver consistently updated research, data, and resources surrounding the mental health issues and substance abuse issues affecting youth, among others. 

It’s been reported that over 20 million people in the U.S. have a substance use disorder (SUD), with many becoming victims of the opioid epidemic still swarming the nation. During the height of the pandemic, the number of people living with mental health conditions and rates of substance misuse increased. One study found that adults, notably young adults, reported considerably elevated rates of mental health conditions during 2020 and 2021. Levels of substance misuse and suicidal ideation also increased around the nation, especially in teens.

According to the American Medical Association, every state in the United States reported a spike or increase in overdose deaths or other problems during the pandemic, concluding that many young people sought substances, such as fentanyl and opioids, as well as a form of self-medication for mental health conditions. When you simultaneously have a substance abuse problem and a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, it is called a co-occurring disorder diagnosis. Dealing with substance abuse is undoubtedly not easy on its own, but it becomes increasingly more problematic when someone is also struggling with mental health. So, it begs the question: how does substance abuse affect mental health issues versus how mental health affects substance abuse?

In co-occurring disorders, mental health issues and substance addiction have their respective symptoms that may get in the way of someone’s ability to function at school, handle life’s challenges, keep a stable atmosphere, and get along with others. Together, the co-occurring disorders also affect one another, adding to the person’s inability to function with stability. Often, self-destruction begins to occur, whether in the form of cutting or eating disorders, or other symptoms.

We know that when a mental health problem goes untreated, the substance abuse problem typically worsens. When alcohol or drug abuse increases, mental health problems almost always increase. So it’s not necessarily one versus the other, and more a collective cycle that the two exist in together. 

Now, can substance abuse without initial mental health complications occur? Yes. Plenty of young people prescribed painkillers for surgery ended up being addicted. And what we understand is that addiction and substance abuse almost always results in mental health issues because drugs and alcohol can have short-term effects on mental state. These can include changes in someone’s mood, concentration, ability to rationalize clearly, ability to relax, and perception of reality. Substances such as marijuana or methamphetamine can cause prolonged psychotic reactions, while alcohol can make any underlying history of depression and anxiety symptoms worse.

Since mental health issues are often caused by a complex web of genetics, someone’s environment, and other social influences, it’s still difficult to say if abusing substances can ever directly cause them. However, if someone is at risk for a mental health issue, using alcohol or drugs may topple that person over a metaphorical edge. 

On the contrary, alcohol, and drugs are often used to self-medicate the symptoms of mental health problems, which is how many people end up in the cycle of co-diagnosis. Many people throughout history have often abused alcohol or drugs to ease symptoms of a mental disorder, whether it’s to cope with difficult emotions of grief or depression, to block out a traumatic event from their past, cope with heartache and loneliness, or to change their mood for a social event or situation temporarily. We know that self-medicating with drugs or alcohol causes side effects and, in the long run, almost always worsens the symptoms they initially helped to relieve.

Substance abuse may also sharply increase symptoms of mental illness or even trigger new symptoms that pertain to that particular mental illness. Abuse of alcohol or drugs can also interact with medications such as antidepressants, anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers, causing them to be less effective at managing symptoms and delaying recovery. 

Substance use also alters levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. This can lead to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. People addicted to substances are twice as likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder.

If you notice signs of behavioral stress or depression in a student, it is imperative to reach out to professionals. If your community coalition or school requires data collection to determine the mental health issues that may be occurring, please get in touch with the Pride Surveys team. We offer a variety of options to fit many needs. Please contact our team at any point to learn more.


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