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.
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.
“Marijuana Addiction and Abuse – Understanding Marijuana Abuse.” Addiction Center, www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/marijuana/.
“Schizophrenia and Addiction.” Addiction Center, 2018, www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/schizophrenia/.
John Gutierrez. “The Connection Between Mental Health and Addiction; Dual Diagnosis.” Mental Health Institute, July 2018
Amber Brooks. “Anxiety Disorders and Addiction”, 2016, www.mentalhealth.gov/anxietydisorders.
Canyon Treatment Center. 2015.