What to Do When Addiction and Mental Health Disorders Collide

By Wesley Gallagher

Drug abuse and addiction are complicated issues hotly debated by today’s politicians, policymakers and mental health professionals. Often, the debate depicts those with addictions as debased criminals instead of people experiencing a disease over which they have no control. In order to understand and help those struggling, we must work to understand the factors that lead people to drug abuse and addiction.

According to an article in the online magazine Aeon, recent research has shown us that addiction is actually a brain disease that is diagnosable by physical and psychological symptoms. But there’s also considerable evidence that some individuals with an addiction can control and even stop their use when they have a powerful enough reason to do so.1

Ultimately, however, addiction is a chronic condition, and recovery will be a lifelong pursuit. And often, along with addiction, psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other mood and personality disorders can contribute to perpetuating the cycle.1

Why is this the case, and how can we help these individuals with their unique struggles? These are complicated questions with complicated answers.

Why Do Psychiatric Disorders Lead to Drug Use?

rubber band ballPeople who struggle with mental health disorders often live with intense, persistent negative emotions and moods and sometimes extreme psychological distress. Such disorders are also associated with various forms of adversity, such as childhood trauma and abuse, emotional neglect, financial issues and family mental illness and instability.

A person with mental health issues may first turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape. Whether it’s the symptoms of their disorder or life circumstances related to it, alcohol and drugs can seem, at first, to offer a coping mechanism for life’s difficulties. The problem is that with continued use, the initial effects that seemed to ease symptoms ultimately fail and are replaced by effects that can actually exacerbate mental health symptoms, consequently compounding adverse life circumstances.1

Once an individual with a psychiatric disorder becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, the road to recovery can be much harder than that of an addicted individual without mental health issues. While someone without such issues may only have one hurdle – addiction – to overcome in order to return to a peaceful, thriving life, someone with mental health issues doesn’t have that same promise.

So the motivation to overcome addiction may not be as strong if there doesn’t appear to be hope for healing the mental health issues as well. Why would someone endure the hardships of quitting these drugs, which may offer some short-term relief, when the long-term view seems just as grim as it was before? This is we need empathy in order to look at the problem.1

How Can You Support a Loved One Who Suffers From Mental Health and Addiction Issues?

If you have a loved one with a mental health disorder who may be using drugs as a way to cope, or who is struggling with addiction, what can you do to support them and encourage them to get the help they need?

Helpguide.org offers advice on what to do when a loved one is struggling with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues:

  • Realize that denial and resistance to treatment is common, and the road to recovery can be long and rocky.
  • Accept what you can and cannot do to help – you can’t force your loved one to get or remain sober, to take their medicine or keep appointments.
  • Create boundaries, making sure you’re taking care of yourself while taking care of your loved one. Get support from friends, family or even a counselor or support group. Don’t overextend yourself trying to support someone else, and set and stick to limits on destructive behavior.
  • Learn everything you can about your loved one’s mental health problem, as well as substance abuse treatment and recovery. The more you understand, the better you can support them.
  • Be patient. Recovery is ongoing and relapse is common, but there is hope.
  • Help your loved one seek appropriate professional treatment.2

What Are Options for Relief and Help?

There are steps you can help your loved one take to address their substance and mental health issues. Helpguide.org offers helpful tips:

  • Learn how to recognize and manage overwhelming emotions and stress. Often what leads people to drug and alcohol abuse is the desire to manage stress and difficult emotions. Healthy coping skills will help your loved one manage stress and unpleasant emotions without turning to drugs.
  • Know your triggers. Help your loved one recognize signs that their mental illness symptoms are flaring up. This could be triggered by things like stressful events, big life changes or unhealthy sleeping and eating habits. Help them recognize and avoid certain people, places and things that might trigger the desire to use drugs as well. Have a plan for the times these triggers come up in order to prevent relapse.
  • Stay connected to others. Ensure your loved one makes a priority of having in-person connection with people who care for and support them. Schedule time with them, and help them find a therapist or support group, which will improve their chances of remaining sober.
  • Stay on track. Your loved one may be tempted to stop medication, treatment or therapy when they start to feel better. Remind them that it was these things that made them feel better in the first place, and it’s important that they continue them in order to stay on the road to recovery. Arbitrarily stopping medicine or treatment is a common cause of relapse in people with co-occurring disorders.
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices. Exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits, relaxation techniques, avoiding tobacco and marijuana and finding new interests and hobbies are all great ways to boost mood and prevent the possibility of relapse. Help your loved one establish new routines that set them up for success.2

What Kind of Treatment Is Best?

The right kind of treatment is imperative for someone with co-occurring disorders. When looking for treatment for your loved one, find a place that offers integrative therapy that addresses substance abuse as well as their specific mental health disorder.2 Proper care will include therapy, education and treatment personalized to the needs of each patient, ensuring that the whole person, not just one aspect of their health, is being addressed.


1 Hains, Brigid. “The Outsider.” Aeon, April 3, 2013.

2 Saisan, Joanna, et. al. “Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues.” Helpguide.org, December 2017.


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