Why Do Mental Illness & Substance Abuse So Often Occur Together?

Why Do Mental Illness & Substance Abuse So Often Occur Together?

Mental illness and substance abuse are closely tied. For many people, their addiction developed as a way to cope with their mental illness. For others, having a substance use disorder caused their mental illness.

When this happens, a person might get a dual diagnosis, a type of treatment offered for those struggling with co-occurring disorders of mental illness and substance abuse. 

Identifying the early signs of mental health issues can be crucial in a dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction.

Pay attention to changes in behavior, thought patterns, mood swings, difficulty coping with new situations, and other important physical and emotional impacts of mental illness and substance abuse.

Mutual Risk Factors

About half of people who have a mental illness also develop a substance use disorder. This can happen because they share similar risk factors. 

Factors like genetics, environmental impacts, social connections, and others are all at play with both mental health and addictions.

All of the following make a person more susceptible to developing a mental illness and/or addiction:

  • Genetics: Mental illness and addictions both tend to run in the family. This is because family members share similarities at a biological level, and disorders of the brain can be passed down.
  • Socioeconomic status: Low socioeconomic status is a major risk factor for mental illness and substance abuse. Factors like unemployment, poverty, and housing unaffordability can significantly increase a person’s chances of becoming depressed, anxious, and other mental responses. 
  • Upbringing: If a person has gone through something traumatic, had an unstable home, abusive family members, or some other stressful impact on their upbringing, they may be more likely to abuse substances and have a mental illness.
  • Stress: Stress can lead a person to abuse substances to feel more at ease, such as drinking a glass of wine every night to wind down. Stress is also a known risk factor for developing many mental disorders. Long-term stress can change the brain’s circuits and affect control and impulsivity.

Causal relationship

Research suggests that mental illness and substance abuse has a causal relationship, meaning they feed into each other. Someone might use substances to self-medicate when they already have a mental illness.

On the flip side, substance use can cause changes in the brain that make a person more susceptible to developing that mental illness.

Once this cycle of using substances and battling mental illness begins, it can be very challenging to stop it. When symptoms of mental illness set in, a person will abuse drugs or alcohol. And when drug and alcohol intake increases, symptoms of mental illness then increase.


Sometimes, a person might drink alcohol or abuse drugs to distract themselves from life. After a hard day at work, a fight with a spouse, or the death of a loved one, substances can be an easy way to feel better for a short time.

But this act of escapism can be a dangerous pattern. Especially when you’re considering mental health, ignoring problems or covering them up with substances can make the underlying causes of substance abuse worse.

Because the root issues are not being addressed, a person is increasingly more at risk of developing a serious mental illness.

Highs and lows of substance use

Oftentimes, addiction and mental illness walk hand-in-hand because of the way a person feels emotionally and mentally on and off substances.

An upper might make you feel happy and euphoric for a short time, but when the effects wear off, reality sets back in. This can result in a physical and emotional crash, which can lead to or worsen existing mental health conditions.

Is there hope for recovery from substance abuse if you have mental illness?

Though mental illness and substance abuse are commonly co-occurring, there is hope. With the right treatment, a person can overcome both mental illness and substance abuse.

With recovery, there’s a chance for restoration of life and fullness again. If you know someone who’s struggling with their mental health, substance abuse, or both, encourage them to get into counseling or addiction treatment.

Author Bio

Hannah Bennett

Hannah Bennett is a content specialist for AddictionResource.net, an informational content guide that provides resources for individuals and their families who struggle with addiction.


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