Dual Diagnosis: The Link Between Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

Addiction changes the brain in vital ways, disrupting a person’s typical hierarchy of needs and desires. In its place are a new set of priorities connected with obtaining and using the substance. The result is compulsive behavior that overtakes the ability to control impulses in spite of the consequences, which is analogous with other mental illnesses.

There is a definite connection between mental illnesses and the use of addictive substances. In fact, people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives are responsible for the consumption of 69% of alcohol, 84% of cocaine, and 68% of cigarettes. Causes and symptoms can be unique to the combination of mental health disorders and the abused substance. Here are some of the issues and examples of the link between addiction and mental illness, as well as treatment options:



Easily the most common issue connecting mental illness and substance abuse by a long shot is the attempt of mental health patients to medicate their disruptive or uncomfortable symptoms by using alcohol and drugs. Examples include:

A depressed patient uses marijuana
A patient suffering from social anxiety drinks to feel more comfortable in social situations
Use of benzodiazepines (like Valium or Xanax) by a patient who has panic attacks attempting to calm symptoms or prevent attacks from happening
A patient with low energy and inability to self-motivate takes various stimulants (Adderall, cocaine, or crystal meth) to boost their energy and increase their productivity


One Disorder Triggers the Other

Drugs and alcohol only temporarily mask the underlying mental health symptoms; they do little to address the symptoms and they ultimately lead to a whole new scheme of problems for the patient. The severity of the original mental health symptoms often increases as well. Specific drugs can create problems that trigger mental health symptoms. Sometimes substances can create symptoms like paranoia, delusions, or depression when the person is under the influence. A co-occurring mental health disorder is likely when these symptoms continue after the drugs wear off. For example:

Chronic drug and alcohol abuse increases the risk of becoming a victim of rape or sexual assault, which leads to more issues like PTSD, depression, or eating disorders
Development of anxiety from poor decision-making while under the influence
Contracting HIV or hepatitis C from unprotected sex or sharing needles, which can also lead to depression and grief over life-changing circumstances
Depression is a common effect of drugs like crystal meth and alcohol when they wear off, and can intensify and deepen into a disorder over time
Many, if not most, addicts have additional psychiatric issues like psychosis, ADHD, and various personality and mood disorders.



When there is a dual diagnosis of both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse issue, it is imperative for the patient to enroll in a treatment program that covers both problems at the same time. Untreated symptoms of a mental health disorder can cause a patient to remain dependent on substances, and untreated substance abuse issues can make mental health treatment futile.

Treatment of addictions requires that professionals trained in mental health understand the full range of psychological treatments and be knowledgeable about the use of both addiction and psychiatric medications. Other alternative treatments, such as holistic therapy can also be very beneficial. Another thing to note: With or without a diagnosable condition, there are always reasons behind someone’s substance abuse, and it is important that those reasons be addressed and respected.


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