What Came First, the Mental Illness or the Addiction?

Ever wonder about the connection between mental illness and addiction? While the two aren’t entirely comorbid, they do tend to go hand-in-hand. It’s a classic, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” scenario. And there’s kind of no answer in regard to which follows which.

It’s common practice for medical professionals to assign dual diagnoses to patients battling addiction and/or mental illness. Various mental illnesses and addictions feed off of one another for a variety of reasons but, once again, they exist as entirely separate entities.

Let’s look at a few of the reasons how and why mental illness and addiction, while distinct from one another, often are a match made in heaven (or hell, or rehab, or the psychiatric ward…*sigh*):

Drugs of Abuse (including Alcohol) can Cause Mental Illness in Abusers

One of the reasons for the correlation between mental illness and addiction is that excessive use of chemical substances can actually cause mental illness over time. Too much methamphetamine usage, for example, can lead to anxiety. Additionally, it can result in loss of brain cells, and can ultimately stunt the brain’s production of serotonin. Serotonin production slowdown can also be triggered by the abuse of other drugs such as MDMA, LSD, cocaine, alcohol, heroin, and the list goes on.

Many of these substances artificially stimulate serotonin production (along with oxytocin and dopamine – two more ‘happy chemicals’), and can ultimately cause the brain to produce less on its own. If your brain begins to produce fewer happy chemicals by itself, you might become chronically depressed. Then guess what? The depression may cause you to want to pick up the drugs again in order to self-medicate, and thus the addiction cycle continues.

Individuals with Mental Illness Often Self-Medicate as a Coping Mechanism

Mental illness, if undiagnosed, often leads to the abuse of substances that ease the discomfort caused by their mental illness in the first place. Tobacco, for example, is believed to lessen the symptoms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenics, as a result, often become chronic smokers. Individuals who suffer from social anxiety, on the other hand, often use alcohol to feel more comfortable in social situations.

Panic attacks are fairly common among addicts as well, and it’s not uncommon for panic attack sufferers to turn to benzos like Xanax or Valium to calm their symptoms. If these medications are prescribed by a medical professional, they can help. A true addict, however, will almost invariably abuse these medications because they’re highly addictive. Conversely, many of these pills can easily be obtained on the black market which makes them that much easier to abuse. And, of course, we have another cycle on our hands.

Side note: If you do suffer from mental illness and are being prescribed medication, no one here is telling you to stop taking your meds. Talk to your doctor (and your sponsor if you’re in a 12-step program) and decide which course of action is best for you. We’re just here to deliver our own experience.*

Other Non-Chemical Addictions that Can Lead to Mental Illness and Vice-Versa

Let’s examine other addictions that don’t necessarily involve chemical substances, at least not initially. Take the sex and love addict, for example. Sex and love addiction usually grows out of some form of childhood trauma, but it can lead to all types of unhealthy behavior into adulthood. These unhealthy behavior patterns can ultimately result in more mental issues down the road.

A sex and love addict who’s addicted to porn or prostitutes, for instance, is likely always going to crave something or someone new when trying to form any type of intimacy. Unfortunately, it can take years of rewiring to reverse this for the sex and love addict, and often this reversal isn’t even possible. Out of all of this grows a complete inability to form an intimate bond with anyone over time, as the insatiable need for constant stimulation and newness outweighs the desire to establish anything long-term. This means that the sex and love addict may never experience a true romantic partnership, or even an authentic connection in any of his or her friendships. Down the track, this can ultimately lead to severe depression and isolation. Are you sensing where this is going in terms of the domino effect caused by the addiction and/or the initial trauma–the one that led to the addiction in the first place?

Then there’s the gambling or shopping addict. Behavioral patterns of a chronic gambler or shopper can have some pretty serious consequences. Behaviors that might seem relatively benign at first (like overspending, for example) can inadvertently destroy marriages, damage personal credit, and leave people homeless. While all of this may sound extreme, addictions like these do exist, and consequences are often grave. The severity of the scenarios depends on the level of addiction, but ruined marriages, homelessness, and the like can all lead to severe depression and anxiety. Depression or anxiety can, in turn, lead to substance abuse. And you all know how the story ends here. These things, of course, just perpetuate all of the problems covered and can lead addicts down an endless rabbit hole of mental illness and a snowballing of other addictions.

The Moral of the Story? If You’re an Addict and You Also Suffer from Mental Illness, You’re Not Alone

Most of us on the other side of your computer screen over here can empathize with all things related to mental illness and addiction. One thing that’s important to remember, particularly if you’ve made the life-changing choice to get clean and maintain a recovery program, is that you have a huge support network. There’s no shortage of addicts with mental illness, and those of us who have found recovery have also discovered that we have many people that we can talk to. Connection is our lifeline, and there is a solution that doesn’t have to involve substance abuse.

We’ve really just scratched the surface here in terms of the relationship between mental illness and addiction, but there’s no denying that they commonly crop up side-by-side. Do you have any insight or personal experience on the topic of mental illness or addiction that you’d like to share with us? Please feel free to comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

Come Home to Kembali

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Kembali Recovery Center is here to help. Please contact us to learn more about our four-week program and our next intake dates. You never have to do this alone.

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