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Is Addiction a Mental Health Issue?

Anyone who has ever spent time with someone who suffers from substance abuse has probably wondered how much of the disorder is mental health-related. After all, the person who is using drugs and alcohol exhibits behaviors similar to someone who has a mental illness.

Researchers have studied and continue to explore the distinction between addiction and mental illness. Experts in the fields of substance abuse and mental health often debate on whether:

● Addiction is a by-product of mental illness

● Addiction is just a form of mental illness

● Addiction and mental illness are entirely two separate issues

The reason it’s so hard to conclude how addiction and mental illness relate or don’t relate is that many people fall into each one of the categories above.

Addiction as a Result of Mental Illness

People who have a mental illness may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Drugs and alcohol help the person cope with their symptoms, either by reducing them or taking their attention away from them.

As people with mental illness continue to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms, they may start to develop a brain disorder. Researchers have found that drugs and alcohol alter the brain, and that can lead to addiction. The brain disorder is what makes it incredibly hard to stop using.

Unfortunately, what happens when someone with mental illness becomes addicted is that they then have two issues to deal with; they must manage their mental illness and work on recovering from their addiction.

Addiction as a Form of Mental Illness

Debates on whether addiction is a mental illness become heated because many researchers believe addiction is rooted in biology, as in it’s a medical problem. Mental illness, on the other hand, is classified as disruptions in feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Addiction doesn’t fall under being a mental illness because the drive to use drugs and alcohol isn’t coming from the mind but rather the body.

Other researchers believe addiction is a form of mental illness because of the behaviors associated with the addiction. These people do not view addiction as a medical condition (rooted in biological/physical disorders), but rather a choice they make each day to use drugs and alcohol. They also believe that thoughts and feelings are disordered, which has a lot to do with the motivation to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Addiction and Mental Illness Are Completely Different

The view addiction and mental illness are completely different are held by the same people who are committed to addiction being a medical condition and mental illness not being one. However, some people believe that mental illness is a medical condition (brain disorder), and addiction is not (it’s a choice people make).

Statistics are unclear on whether addiction and mental illness are separate or associated with one another. In 2014, 20.2 million Americans were identified as having a substance use disorder, and 7.9 million had a substance abuse disorder and mental illness. Mental Health First Aid reports 43.8 million people experience mental illness annually, but the number of people suffering from substance abuse doesn’t reach that high. People who have mental illness outnumbers those suffering from substance abuse could suggest addiction may not be a by-product of mental illness. However, that may not be true for everyone. Since not everyone with a substance abuse disorder is identified as having a mental illness, it’s challenging to know the answer to whether addiction is a mental health issue.

Many studies have been conducted on the topic of substance abuse and mental illness, and they often contradict one another. Those contradictions are what keeps people wondering about whether addiction is a mental health issue. The only way to come to a conclusion about the topic is to continue studying both issues separately and together.

What Rehabs Do About Addiction and Mental Health in Treatment

The real issue with the debate is the challenge it poses when it comes to treating addiction and mental health. Without knowing what to treat (a brain disorder or thoughts, feelings, and behaviors), it can be hard to help people recover completely from their addiction and mental illness.

Fortunately, addiction treatment centers in the United States have come up with programs that help people who are suffering from substance abuse disorders by integrating mental health assistance. When people enroll in a substance abuse treatment program, they receive a mental health evaluation. This evaluation seeks to identify if the person has a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder. A mental illness diagnosis can help the treatment include psychiatric services in the treatment plan. Psychiatric services may consist of an evaluation by a psychiatrist and medications to stabilize the mental illness. The psychiatric services will be in addition to the addiction treatment, as the addiction treatment focuses more on the detoxing the person and then working on the physical and mental dependency associated with the addiction. The mental health portion of the treatment can help make the addiction treatment success because the symptoms of the person’s mental illness will be less likely to interrupt the treatment.

An Additional Consideration About Mental Health and Addiction

Mental health and mental illness are not synonymous. Mental health is the health of someone’s mind. Addiction can be destructive to mental health, but it may not cause mental illness. People who suffer from addiction may feel depressed, anxious, etc., but they are side effects of substance abuse.

When we consider this definition of mental health, we can say that addiction compromises people’s mental health. And not just the mental health of those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, but family members and other loved ones.

Important Takeaway: Just because addiction compromises mental health, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is associated with mental illness.

Focus on What’s Important

If you’re a loved one of someone who is suffering from addiction and you’re wondering if it’s a mental illness, try to not focus so much on figuring out the causes and underlying issues of the addiction, but rather the addiction itself. Treatment is available to recover from addiction, and treatment is available to manage mental health issues. Getting both treatments is possible through a rehab center, and then seeking additional help for addiction and mental illness is possible after release.

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