The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Connection

By February 15, 2021February 22nd, 2024Mental Health, Substance Abuse
Mental Health and Substance Abuse

There is a clear connection between mental health and substance abuse. People often turn to substances as a means of numbing uncomfortable feelings, including depression, anxiety, and trauma. This type of self-medication is dangerous because it can lead to the development of substance abuse and addiction.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at the clear connection between mental health and substance abuse.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

There was a time when struggles with substance abuse were considered to be indicative of a failure in character on behalf of the user. So-called alcoholics and drug addicts were considered to be lazy, avoidant of responsibilities, and social miscreants. Society preferred to gossip and cluck tongues about the addict, and then sweep them under the rug as often as possible.

Perhaps it was due to the growing knowledge of prescribed medications contributing to so many addictions, but, at some point, society shifted away from blaming the victim in this scenario. Drug and alcohol addiction began to be recognized not only as a problem for the individual and society but also as being a symptom of underlying factors. Substance abuse is not only treated as a medical condition but also an integrated factor of mental health.

Here’s what you need to know about the connection between mental health and substance abuse.

Co-occurring Disorders

Rather than being kept in a bubble, substance abuse issues are increasingly being treated in tandem with mental health issues. It has been found that nearly 10 million people in the United States suffer from mental health issues which both exacerbate, and are exacerbated by, simultaneous substance abuse. While it can be a type of chicken-and-egg scenario, the high rate of these two factors existing simultaneously has given rise to the perspective of approaching substance abuse as a co-occurring disorder.

Learn more about treatment for co-occurring disorders.

Mental Health Factors Contributing to Substance Abuse

Psychological studies have consistently linked the presence of preexisting mental health disorders to the increased likelihood of engaging in substance abuse behaviors. In therapist circles, this phenomenon is often referred to as self-medicating behavior. A person with an undiagnosed or untreated mental health disorder will attempt to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms through using alcohol or illicit drugs. Once the mental health issues are appropriately and adequately addressed, such a person may no longer feel the need to attempt to escape through substance abuse. The following are a handful of common mental health conditions that can tempt a person toward using substances.


The experience of depression is a prime candidate for the temptation to self-medicate. Symptoms of depression include feeling hopeless, lacking in motivation to make changes, and not being able to take joy in daily activities. Depressed people who experiment with substances may find the initial experiences to bring a welcome relief from the weight of despair, not realizing that the temporary reprieve can turn into a spiral of dependence and addiction.

Start healing with a holistic approach to depression.


While those with depression can suffer from a lack of energy, those suffering from anxiety can have too much of it. A person with anxiety will tend to feel keyed up and nervous, even during situations where there is no rational reason for it. Using a non-prescribed substance to calm the nerves can help an anxious person to feel more normal while interacting and relaxing.

Learn more holistic anxiety treatment for women.


As one can imagine, living daily with the symptoms of psychosis can be stressful. Psychosis is characterized as experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, and as believing in things that other people find absurd or bizarre. The constant barrage of voices, visions, and far-out ideas experienced by people living with such a reality can lead to desperate attempts to shut it down and just relax for a bit. These attempts to indulge in a sense of normality can include using alcohol or illicit drugs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is included last on this list because it can encompass all of the above symptoms. A person suffering from PTSD has been exposed to some form of a traumatic event in their past. Rather than being able to move past this trauma, the mind, emotions, and body refuse to let it go. The traumatized person can experience a range of mental states and emotions and may turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to stabilize.

Learn more about PTSD treatment programs for women.

Substance Abuse Effects on Mental Health

Those who attempt to treat their mental health symptoms with substance abuse may be surprised to learn that the long-term effects of doing so can not only increase those symptoms but also create new ones. Many of us have heard stories of one bad trip resulting in a permanent break from reality. Using substances can also result in scenarios where we find ourselves in genuine danger, resulting in experiencing trauma.

Substance abuse also has a way of robbing us of our ability to experience peace and joy while sober. The following are some of the commonly abused drugs and their potential impact on mental health.


Alcohol is in a rare category when it comes to substance abuse, as it both legal and promoted as a recreational medium within our culture. The benefits of alcohol consumption include feeling more relaxed and able to enjoy the events of the day. What alcohol gives, however, can also end up taking away. Those who persist in heavy alcohol consumption will eventually find that they are unable to enjoy anything without it, which is a symptom of depression.


Marijuana is rapidly joining the ranks of alcohol when it comes to being legal and socially acceptable to use. Proponents of marijuana use cite its tendency to help a person relax before a stressful event or after a long day. For those who indulge in excessive amounts of the drug, this relaxation can turn into an inability to find the motivation to move forward in life. Lacking motivation is a primary symptom that is associated with depression. As with any drug, excessive use of marijuana can result in the development of dependence. Once you develop a dependence on marijuana, you may find it difficult to accomplish basic daily tasks over time.


The dangers of opioid addiction came to light over the past decade. Not only were doctors over-prescribing the addictive medication, but users found ways to score the drugs outside of a prescription. When the prescription pills were no longer available, some addicted persons turned to use heroin. While the emotional and physical highs produced by opioids can be pleasurable, the cost of using can be the development of chronic depression.


Amphetamines, and methamphetamine, fall into the category of stimulant drugs. Users may experience the benefits of increased energy and decreased feelings of vulnerability. Along with these superhuman powers comes a high risk of developing symptoms of psychosis. The experience of paranoia, disorganized thinking, hallucinations, and delusions can persist long after the drugs are ceased, and can even end up being permanent.

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