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Exploring the Connection Between Substance Use & Mental Illness

Substance use and mental illness are undoubtedly connected with one another. One does not necessarily cause the other, but the side effects of both have a tendency to affect common groups of community members. This article will explore how Substance Use Disorders and other mental illnesses can co-occur, how existing mental illnesses can promote substance use, and how substance use can lead to new mental illnesses.

The team at Pacifica Treatment Centre is dedicated to raising awareness and encouraging healthy conversation around substance use. By making this information available to everyone, we are hoping to challenge existing stigmas and allow community members to get the support they deserve.


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mental illness

How do Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness Co-occur?

First things first, it is important that we clearly define each term involved in this discussion.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD): a mental illness that affects a person’s brain and behaviour, causing impaired self-control, decision-making, and impulsiveness. A SUD results in a person’s inability to control their use of substances such as legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications. Symptoms can range from moderate to severe. Once a person meets the criteria for a Substance Use Disorder, it is classified by the Canadian government as a mental illness.

Substance Use: the act of using substances, for either recreational use or persistent misuse leading to the development of a SUD.

Mental Illness: refers to a wide range of mental health disorders that affect mood, thinking and behaviour.

Co-occurring: Happening at the same time, with or without a causal connection

Mental Illnesses Leading to Substance Use

Anxiety, Depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are all examples of mental illnesses that cause a person significant distress. In an attempt to find relief, people may turn to substances as a way to cope or self-medicate.

While substances may temporarily help with the pain and negative emotions, the long-term effects actually manifest in changes to their physiology, brain chemistry, and leave them with progressively worse symptoms than when they started.

As noted, the symptoms of mental illness can often lure people into substance use. At the same time, substance use can alter a person’s neurological, cognitive, and psychological condition resulting in mental illness. The duality of this relationship is partly responsible for why people commonly experience concurrent disorders.


Substance Use Contributing To Mental Illness

Over time, substances will affect the body and especially the brain. In their own way, each substance can impact the brain, blocking neuroreceptors, reducing inhibitions and even rewiring the brain’s connections that determine decision making and impulse control.

Substance use during adolescence, when the brain is still developing, is a risk factor for the development of mental illness. While it is not directly causal, it has a shared influence along with genetics, psychosocial and environmental factors. Damaging the structure of the brain can lead to conditions such as Personality Disorders and Schizophrenia.

Repeated substance use will alter the structure and function of the brain and shape your behaviour. Substances cause an abnormally large rush of endorphins and dopamine. These are responsible for the feelings of euphoria and the addictiveness of the substance. As the amount and frequency of substance use increases, your brain becomes trained to repeat the behaviour of substance use to get the dopamine reward.

Substances are either stimulants or depressants, and depressants can worsen feelings of loneliness, isolation, sadness and hopelessness; all of which can lead you towards depression which may progressively get worse as substance use continues.


So Which One Should You Get Treatment For?

Since there is a dual relationship, do you seek out treatment for your mental illness to resolve substance use? Or do you treat Substance Use Disorders to prevent/manage mental illness? The answer is somewhere in between.

Substance recovery programs are well aware of the connection between substance use and mental illness, which is why programs always place an emphasis on fundamental lifestyle changes that will improve your overall health and wellbeing.

If you are given the tools and coping mechanisms needed to manage your anxiety or overcome your depression, suddenly, substances lose their power.

Click Here To Learn More About Pacifica’s Recovery Program


Co-occurring Mental Illnesses

Based on research and reporting, SUDs and mental illnesses often co-occur. Infact, 20% of people living with mental illness have a co-occurring Substance Use Disorder. Of community members who suffer from Substance Use Disorders along with a co-occurring mental illness, these are the most commonly reported:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia – Studies indicate as many as 50% of persons diagnosed with schizophrenia are at risk of Substance Use Disorders.


Substance Use Recovery Programs Available in Vancouver, BC

Here at Pacifica, we encourage community members to own their path — every journey is different and unique, from the personal connections, freedom to make choices, to their commitment and personal investment in themselves. We work collaboratively with you, co-creating the conditions required for self-discovery, self-empowerment and self-actualization. We want to inspire community members to identify and implement recovery-based goals that result in sustainable solutions.

For more information about our pre-engagement and in-residence programs, reach out to us by calling our office or online through our contact page.

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