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Mental Health & Co-Occurring Disorders Help

An addiction isn't a moral failing. It's a disease that's sparked by changes in brain chemistry. Researchers, doctors, and therapists all agree that addiction is a mental illness.

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But it’s not the only one you can have at one time.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that about half of all people with an addiction will also have another mental health challenge, such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. The reverse is true too. If you have a mental health issue, you’re at a higher risk of developing an addiction.

mental illness

When addictions and other mental health challenges intertwine, experts consider them co-occurring conditions. They can’t be treated in isolation, as they will reinforce one another and block healing. But when they are treated at the same time, you could experience true recovery.

Common Co-Occurring Conditions

There are many types of mental health issues, and any of them could be associated with addiction. Researchers focus their work on a handful of issues that are most common, and that work has helped us understand just why addiction and other mental health problems often come together.

Conditions often associated with addiction include:
  • Depression. This mental health problem is more than a sad mood. Per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people with depression have severe symptoms that interfere with the way they feel, think, and tackle daily tasks, including working, sleeping, and eating. Significant symptoms must be present for two weeks for a diagnosis to apply.
  • Anxiety. In the United States, anxiety disorders are common, says the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. More than 18 percent of the population has an anxiety disorder.
  • Bipolar disorder. Periods of unusually intense emotion, sometimes punctuated by extreme shifts from happiness to depression, characterize this mental illness. The moods are extreme, so they’re far beyond what a person might experience during a normal day.Four types of bipolar disorder are recognized, NIMH says. While all of them involve mood changes, they can vary in severity.
  • Schizophrenia. This is a severe mental illness that can change the way you think and feel about yourself and the world around you. It’s associated with considerable disability, as many people with the disorder mistrust those trying to help them. They may resist treatment, even though it could help them.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This disorder causes intrusive thoughts and unusual behaviors. Sometimes they’re linked, as someone engages in a behavior (like washing their hands) in response to a thought (like a fear of germs). But they don’t always go together.The condition can be severe. NIMH says some people with OCD engage in repeated behavior for an hour per day or longer.
  • Personality disorders. There are more than 10 types of personality disorders, says the American Psychiatric Association. They are all defined by unusual behavior and inner experiences.People with antisocial personality disorder, for example, may repeatedly lie or deceive others. People with histrionic personality disorder may do anything to be at the center of attention.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. Close to 4 percent of Americans have this disorder, says the American Psychiatric Association, and it’s more common among women than men. Those with the disorder have disturbing memories of an event that intrude on the present day, even when they’re not actively trying to remember anything about their experiences. It’s often associated with wartime, but PTSD can be triggered by interpersonal violence (like rape) or natural disasters (like earthquakes).

How Addiction and Mental Health Intertwine

Clearly, every mental health challenge is a little different. But how they intersect with addiction can be remarkably similar.

For some people, addictions develop due to a need to control a mental illness. For example, someone with PTSD may experience difficult nightmares that punctuate sleep. Alcohol can deaden sleep and produce sedation that blocks dreams. Someone might start drinking in the evenings to keep the night’s thoughts clear. But in time, the person may be drawn to drink even when it’s not bedtime.

For others, the addiction comes first. For example, a person may develop a physical affinity for marijuana. That person may enjoy the distortion in perception the drug brings, and daily use may become the norm. That use can tinker with the brain and make latent schizophrenia symptoms come to the fore. When that happens, marijuana and mental health perception changes blur.

doctor diagnosing a patient

When you’re living with two mental health issues, you might consider treating one before touching the other. If only you could ease depression, you might think, you could get by without a drink.

But NIDA reports that integrated strategies work best. You’re more likely to get better when you address both problems with one program at the same time.

A program like that includes elements you’re accustomed to seeing in traditional addiction treatment settings, such as:
  • Individual counseling. You work one-on-one with a counselor to understand your addiction’s roots.
  • Group counseling. You work with other people in recovery as your counselor guides all of you through lessons on addiction.
  • Support group work. You meet with others in recovery, and you learn from one another in an informal setting.
  • Medication management. You use prescription drugs to amend changes in brain chemistry.
  • Alumni work. When the program is through, you stay connected through periodic meetings and activities.

But each element includes aspects you’ll need to heal from both addiction and mental illness. You won’t deal with just one problem in these sessions. Everything you do will be designed to help you gain control over both issues.

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Where Should You Get Treatment?

Private treatment facilities often specialize in care for people with co-occurring conditions. But if you lack even minimal resources or access, you might be interested in a nonprofit or state-run option.

You could start your search by looking into:

  • State health departments. It’s not unusual for states to house mental health services within public health departments. These are funded by the state, and you might be able to get the care you need without paying a cent. Some come with wait times, and others will require you to prove that you can’t pay for care. But they can be good options for those who can’t afford care in any other way.
  • State mental health authorities. These departments are devoted to issues of mental health, including addiction. Directories give you access to the directors of these departments. While you may not need to call the leader directly, you could speak with a receptionist about how to enroll and what you will need to bring with you to prove you’re eligible.
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. If you served in the military, you’re likely eligible for subsidized health care through the VA. You’ll need to apply for access, and doing so means gathering paperwork and filling out forms. But at the end of the process, you could get the help you need.This could be especially helpful for you if your PTSD symptoms began in wartime. You could get connected with other veterans in recovery.
  • Dual Recovery Anonymous. This organization follows a 12-step model, and it’s made specifically for people who have both addictions and mental illnesses. You’ll connect with others struggling with the same issues that plague you, and together, you’ll find a way forward.Meetings are free, and they can help you stay connected to recovery when your formal treatment plan is complete.

Whether you look into state-run programs or private care, it’s critical that you get the help you need. Addictions and mental illnesses don’t tend to get better in time. They usually worsen without help.

Treatment does work, and there are plenty of programs that can help you. Reach out and get the care you need.

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