The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that about one in four adults in the United States has a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. The connection between a mental illness like this and a substance abuse issue is well known, and as a result, many treatment programs for addiction provide routine screenings for mental illness, just to ensure that administrators are aware of all the issues that might impact recovery. Similarly, many programs for mental illness screen for addiction and substance abuse problems, allowing administrators there to provide appropriate treatment.
There are times, however, when people have a specific mental health issue that doesn’t quite merit a full diagnosis of a mental health disorder. People like this might still be struggling, but they might not feel as though they need to head to a mental health specialist for intensive help.
Instead, many of them seem content to lean on addictive substances to help them cope, and if they do so, they could make a terrible situation even more serious.
Some mental health difficulties emerge suddenly, when someone close passes away due to an accident or a swiftly moving illness. Feelings of grief are considered normal during this process, but the symptoms that a loss can trigger can be hard to deal with.
Common changes include:
- Loss of appetite
- Sweeping feelings of anger
- Nightmares or vivid dreams
- Social withdrawal
It’s easy to see how substance abuse can be tempting in a time of grief. Sedating substances could allow a person to sleep soundly, forgetting about the loss for just a few hours. Stimulant drugs, on the other hand, might allow people to zoom through work tasks with ease, rather than feeling slow and sluggish. Some people incapacitated by grief find that temporary treatment with drugs helps them to cope, but it can be a tricky proposition, as these drugs can sometimes bring about chemical changes that lead to compulsive use or addiction.
Many addictive drugs bring about their pleasant effects by boosting either the production or the recycling of chemicals the brain uses during moments of pleasure. It’s a bit of chemical fakery that can make a person feel intense joy, but it comes with deep consequences, as the brain tends to play an elaborate game of chicken with the drugs in question. The brain stops responding to low doses, and the brain may stop producing chemicals at all unless the drugs are present. A mild case of grief can explode into deep feelings of sadness when drugs are present.
Coping with Distress
Handling grief and loss can be difficult, but some people turn to drugs due to ongoing abuse they face at home. According to an article in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, domestic violence and substance abuse often go hand in hand. Those who abuse drugs might be more likely to lash out with physical expressions of anger, while those on the receiving end of those blows might be more likely to soothe their distress with drugs. Once again, this habit could allow a sense of depression and loss to deepen, due to the interaction of the brain and the substances of abuse, but there might be an even more significant consequence when domestic violence is compounded by substances, as those who medicate aren’t dealing with the underlying cause of pain.
Domestic abuse struggles tend to grow more intense, as episodes tend to become more and more severe. In time, they could even progress to the degree that one party loses a life. Children might witness the episodes too, and they might develop their own traumas to process. If both parties are sober and willing, they might be able to come to some sort of understanding, or they might choose to separate for the health of everyone involved. But when one or both partners are involved with substances, these conversations are much less likely.
Life Status Changes
Even lives that seem placid, unencumbered by traumatic episodes, can be filled with transition points that put a person under stress, such as:
- Children leaving home
- Career change
The labels a person applies to his or her life might no longer apply during a time like this. People can feel adrift, unsure of what the future might bring, and they might be filled with feelings of depression or anxiety. Substance use can be a crutch a person uses to get through this time, suppressing unhappy feelings and increasing those feelings of happiness and pleasure, but the drugs can also work against healthy movement forward in life. After all, a person who is sedated isn’t really working through issues and coming up with solutions and insights. When the person is sober, all of that work remains to be done, and the delay could make the transition even harder to complete.
While many people come to substance abuse due to new mental health conditions that arise rather suddenly, there are some people who lived through terrible episodes, but who carry deep scars with them on a daily basis. People who endured sexual abuse as a child, for example, might carry feelings of pain and shame with them, and an article in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs suggests that these feelings of shame and memories of trauma can be a powerful trigger for substance abuse. Illicit substances can help the person to forget the incident, and they might even allow the person to interact with others without feeling shame and guilt. But again, this substance abuse really isn’t helpful, as it doesn’t allow the person to process what’s happened and come to a new understanding about life.
People abusing drugs due to a new mental health issue might be able to reverse the damage before they develop a full-blown case of addiction. Sometimes, for example, they can benefit from a brief intervention for addiction performed by a doctor or a mental health specialist. Only one, two or three sessions might be included in this model, but the person is exposed to the idea that the substance abuse could exacerbate the mental health issue in play. The person is also given some tools that could help in the fight for sobriety. In a study of this approach in the journal Addiction, researchers found that people with relatively moderate levels of alcoholism improved with brief interventions, and that improvement extended into the six-month follow-up mark. It’s clear that this kind of help could be right for some people. When the person is sober, a few sessions of counseling might then help to amend the underlying issue that triggered the problem, bringing real relief.
There are some people, however, who need more than a little help in order to deal with a mental health and substance abuse issue. They might find it hard to get sober after a brief intervention, for example, or their sobriety might be continually compromised by the life stresses they don’t yet know how to handle. People like this might benefit from more comprehensive care. Enrolling in a residential program that can handle both mental illness and addiction can provide these people with the space and help they’ll need in order to heal on a deeper level.
If you or someone you love needs help like this, Black Bear Lodge might be just right. The program we offer is known as a Dual Diagnosis treatment program, which means we’re capable of addressing both mental illness and addiction. Our therapists can develop treatment plans that are sensitive to the complicated life histories of people with co-occurring disorders, and we can even incorporate alternative therapies like exercise and yoga into our healing plans. It’s a robust program of help, and we’d like to tell you about it. Please call us to find out more.