How are mental health issues affected by drug use and abuse?

An epidemic is sweeping the nation, infecting about effects around 60% of Americans. Almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by addiction, but what are we doing about it? Rates of drug use have only been increasing in the last thirty years and mental health disorders have been on the rise as well. A coincidence? I promise you, it is not. 


In a 2018 study, people who died from suicide were tested to see if they were under the influence at the time of their death. Above is the results of the study.

But does correlation mean causation?

In any statistics class, you are taught the golden rule: correlation does not mean causation. Though the table above may be convincing, there needs to be more evidence. The biopsychosocial model can explain the connection between addiction and mental illness. This model looks at the  interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors which is extremely useful when coming to causes of mental health diagnosis. Addiction is a complex topic, but these three elements are extremely influential to the development of severe mental illnesses from drug use and abuse. 


  • The reason people feel “high” while on drugs is that  there is an overflow of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure, and these drugs can inhibit the reuptake of this dopamine. As one continues to use, less and less dopamine will be available to go through the brain’s reward pathway. When one is not under the influence, there is less dopamine available to make one feel the pleasure of happiness for doing everyday activities, which can lead to feelings of sadness. 
  • Certain drugs can influence the function of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for stress management. As this function is inhibited, one is more prone to becoming overwhelmed in stressful situations and may not be able to cope in a healthy way, leading to the development of mental illness


  • One’s pre-existing psychological conditions, even if they are minute, can be worsened with drug use. This can affect one’s coping skills and family/friend relationships.
  • Self-esteem is heavily dependent on the physical and mental health of an individual. Drug use changes one’s physical appearance, example heroin causes people to pick at their skin, resulting in severe skin damage, which can demean how one views themself. Also, their mental condition deteriorates, self-esteem can plummet which opens up one’s vulnerability to mental illness. 


  • Humans are extremely open to influence and this is seen, particularly, in teenagers. Most Americans admit to experimenting with drugs from ages 12-20 and have developed some sort of dependence on them. This behavior is, unfortunately, normalized. Teenagers are also extremely sensitive in terms of brain chemistry and any alteration can dramatically damage its structure and function, resulting in misfires and lack of neurotransmitters. This can lead to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. 
  • One’s childhood environment is also extremely influential. How one’s parents reacted to stress, whether or not it involved drug use, can show a child how they should cope. Also living in an urban environment makes one more likely to experiment with drugs. Mental health in urban environments is also worse than in suburban areas. 

The Dual Diagnosis:

Each drug has a different impact on the mental and physical effects of an individual. Addiction is considered a mental health disorder, itself, so when someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition while having an addiction, it is called a dual diagnosis. While using, some drugs can damage certain areas of the brain, meaning that different issues can come from different substances. Here are some of the most common mental illnesses and the effects that drugs have on them: 

Depression: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, the use of this drug tends to trigger depression symptoms like lethargy, sadness and hopelessness. However, many depressed individuals reach for drugs or alcohol as a way to lift their spirits or to numb painful thoughts. As a result, depression and substance abuse feed into each other, and one condition will often make the other worse

Anxiety: One’s withdrawal from alcohol and other central nervous system depressant drugs may trigger rebound anxiety and even panic attacks. Though not a CNS depressant drug, marijuana can make one experience feelings similar to that of anxiety, such as heavy breathing, fast heart-beat and lightheadedness, so it can intensify one’s anxiety. Stimulants can be lead to a severe increase in neurotransmitter activity leading to sensations of overwhelmedness and panic. 

Schizophrenia: People with schizophrenia are sometimes not able to distinguish the difference between what is imaginary and reality. Though drug use does not lead to the development of this condition, it can severely worsen it. In 2019, it was estimated that 50 percent of individuals suffering from schizophrenia have a history of substance abuse. Drug use can serve as an environmental trigger and can have serious mental repercussions. 

What are we doing about this?

Each state funds certain rehabilitation centers that specialize in drug rehab as well as mental health treatment. However, certain states recognize the connection between mental health issues and addiction. In my community, Colorado is ranked one of the better states at providing treatment to those who are struggling. For example, Colorado has the third-highest amount of rehab centers per capita out of all other states. But Colorado is ranked number five for the amount of suicides from overdose out of the nation. So, why aren’t the state’s efforts actually working? 

Let’s look at the state laws. In 2012, recreational marijuana was legalized state-wide and people poured into the state to celebrate its legalization. Though it was done with the intention to give the tax income to local schools, Colorado did a subpar job at educating the public on the effects of the consistent use of the drug. School drug educational systems were losing funding and teenage use of marijuana was at an all-time high. Efforts like restrictions on marijuana advertising and stricter ID inspection made some progress, but they are simply not enough. 

Mental health carries a heavy stigma and not many people openly talk about this issue, the same goes for addiction. It is critical that educational programs are instituted in each state and emphasize the connection between addiction and mental health issues. Organizations like the Betty Ford Foundation, working in Denver, help those with addiction as well as their children and connect them with counselors to guide them through the tough times they may be going through. It is foundations like these that are making real progress in bringing more attention to this connection and giving people the tools to dissolve the connection while living healthier lives. 

What can you do to shed light on this epidemic? On a bigger level, changes need to be made in public policy. There is simply not enough resources for those who are struggling to utilize. Talking to policy makers about the gravity of this problem would be a step in the right direction. On a smaller scale, just being informed on the problem and not passing judgement on those who are struggling can really help. Just being an advocate to support someone who is suffering from multiple types of mental disease is crucial, as it is simply not possible for them to do this alone. With the combined support of the community and its people, it is possible to end this once and for all. 

Works Cited: 

“Marijuana Addiction and Abuse – Understanding Marijuana Abuse.” Addiction Center,

“Schizophrenia and Addiction.” Addiction Center, 2018,

John Gutierrez. “The Connection Between Mental Health and Addiction; Dual Diagnosis.” Mental Health Institute, July 2018

Amber Brooks. “Anxiety Disorders and Addiction”, 2016, 


Canyon Treatment Center. 2015. 

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Anna

    Hey, I think this is a very interesting topic choice and one that has a lot of information with in it. I think you did a really good job breaking down the information and you’re video is very good. Thank you this is a great presentation.

  2. April 24, 2020 by Maria

    This topic was very interesting to read and I think it’s amazing that you compared the stigma of mental health to addiction. It is an important issue that needs attention.

  3. April 24, 2020 by Andrea Garcia

    Hi Emily! This was a super interesting topic and I am glad your paper sheds light to this situation. It’s crazy to see the extent that substance and drug abuse can cause upon an individual especially one suffering from a mental illness. In order to shed light on this epidemic, I think sharing this project would be a great idea in order to educate communities. Do you really think that this epidemic could be terminated permanently?

    • April 27, 2020 by Emmy

      Hi Andrea!
      As with anything, I don’t believe that this issue can be completely terminated, however, I do believe that taking some steps, like what I highlighted above, can help decrease its prevalence. I think that the our greatest enemy for this issue is the societal acceptance and standard that some levels of drug abuse are acceptable, but, nobody really knows when it is time to seek out help. I think that by educating younger populations more effectively, we can show what risks come with drug use and how mental health can be affected as well.

  4. April 24, 2020 by Chauncey Hill

    Hi! I really like this topic because I think that this is something that needs more light shed on it. Most people have so many stigmas towards substance abuse, and it is important to understand that most, if not all, correlate with mental disorders and need treatment and support from others to get through. Nice job!

  5. April 24, 2020 by Sides

    Hey! I am very glad to see someone talking about this subject. I think it is very important that you are talking about this to us, younger people. It is important that we learn all of this at a young age so when we get older, we don’t fall into the substance abuse trap. Great paper!

  6. April 26, 2020 by Cecelia

    This topic is one that I am very passionate about and I am so glad you decided to dedicate your research to it. I actually did my senior thesis about rehabilitation for those struggling with substance use disorder. I think that this topic is under discussed especially its connection other mental illnesses. It is so easy for people to be ashamed of their substance use problem and adding another mental illness makes people even more ashamed. I like how you included more resources are a necessity because that will come with more people acknowledging the national problem of substance abuse.

  7. April 26, 2020 by Heather

    Hi Emily, you complied excellent information on an important topic. I hope that you continue to work on this issue even though the project itself is over. What might you continue to advocate and expand the conversation beyond this conference?

    • April 27, 2020 by Emmy

      Hi! In my presentation, I mentioned the Betty Ford Foundation. I have a special connection to them because I actually volunteer there, that is why I became so interested in this topic. This is one way in which I advocate for this issue, but I hope that just by continuing to spread awareness on this issue, that people will become more aware of this problem and think because they choose to use. My ideal situation is instituting programs in schools with the sole purpose of drug education because it is the younger generations that are most vulnerable.

  8. April 27, 2020 by Lola

    Hi Emily! Thanks for raising awareness to this topic. I will now think differently of people on the streets homeless.

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