Struggling with a substance use disorder creates enough problems on its own. Damage to relationships, stress, difficulties at work, financial troubles, physical sickness and more all pars for the course when you’re facing an addiction. It can all feel like too much for any one person to handle.

If you’re struggling with substance use and a mental health disorder at the same time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and both conditions are impossible to overcome.

The connection between mental health and substance use

It may not surprise you that co-occurring substance use and mental health issues are common. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around half of those who face a substance use disorder are also impacted by a mental health disorder, and vice versa. While one doesn’t necessarily guarantee the onset of another, each makes the other much more likely to occur.

Not only are the two conditions frequently present together, but they tend to exacerbate each other. Having a substance use disorder can make it difficult to manage mental health distress, and a mental illness can lead to addictive behaviors, self-medication and difficulty managing triggers.

People often wonder which condition precedes the other, and whether one condition can actually cause the other or if there are underly factors that contribute to each. The answers to these questions are complex and differ for each individual, but here’s what science has discovered so far.

  • There is rarely a single cause responsible for the onset of a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder. Rather, both mental health and substance use tend to be caused by a combination of factors, such as genetic predispositions, and environmental and neurological factors
  • Mental health and substance use may begin at the same time, or one may occur before the other. If a person experiences one disorder, the distress it causes may be a contributing factor to the onset of the other
  • Determining the origins of an addiction or a mental health disorder is a tricky business. Therapy can help a person determine the root of an addiction or mental health disorder, but the bulk of treatment will focus on healing and managing symptoms

There is a significant connection between mental health and substance use. Read on to get some real-life answers to how addiction affects mental health.

How addiction affects mental health

While addiction doesn’t necessarily cause mental health disorders, it can have a serious influence on the development of a disorder or the worsening of a pre-existing one. Even casual substance use can quickly spiral, affecting mood, energy level, behavior, self-image and so forth- all of which in turn affect mental well-being.

The longer an addiction continues and the more severe a dependence becomes, the more an addiction is likely to impact a person’s behavior and mental health. This is due to the chemical changes in the brain. Regularly consuming drugs or alcohol can result in neurological changes that alter motivations, perception of reality, thought patterns and the ability to regulate emotions.

When a person remains stuck in the cycle of addiction for several months or more, these brain changes may become normal for the person experiencing them. Only once sobriety is reached will someone be able to clearly analyze their past actions and see how drastically drugs drove certain responses. It’s common for a person in recovery to identify irritability, depression, anxiety or stress as a response to addiction, rather than their natural state.

Substance use may numb a person to the severity of their maladaptive mental health. Healing requires self-awareness of problematic thought and behavior patterns, and treatment is designed to restore clear thinking so you can be in control of your own behavior and wellness.


In understanding how addiction affects mental health, it’s important to understand the concept of self-medication. While it’s been stated that there’s no single cause for the onset of either disorder, it’s proven to be a common experience that people who suffer from both mental health and substance use issues develop an addiction due to an attempt to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness with mind-altering substances.

Self-medication is often illegal, dangerous and extremely harmful mentally and physically. Prescription and recreational drugs are often sought for the temporary relief they can provide for both physical and mental pain, but the long-term effect is the development of tolerance and dependence, and all of the subsequent issues that come along with addiction.

Common mental health triggers

It’s not accurate to say that substance use directly causes mental health, but addiction can surely affect mental health triggers. Here are some ways that addiction can lead to mental distress.

  • Repeated substance use habits can increase the chances of assault
  • Heavy drug and alcohol use can directly contribute to breakdowns in decision-making and mental clarity
  • Alcohol and specific drugs may directly contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Withdrawal from specific substances can at times lead to feelings of grief

Suffice it to say, substance use makes mental health issues even more difficult to address. At best, drug and alcohol use can cloud judgment. At worst, drug and alcohol use can severely impair mental health, making essential functions like speech and concentration difficult long after the short-term effects of substance use subside.

Holistic healing

The best way to address co-occurring mental health and substance use is through professional treatment that heals the whole person. This is called holistic healing, and evidence-based practice suggests that simultaneously treating mental health disorders and substance use disorders is the key to full recovery.

At Real Recovery, you can find the care you need for comorbid disorders. Find true freedom with clinical services individualized to fit your needs. Call today to start making meaningful changes.