Substance Abuse and Mental Illnesses

One of the world’s largest and most dangerous epidemics is the raging addiction to illegal drugs and substance abuse. A 2014 study showed that more than 21 million American citizens 12 years of age and older struggle with a substance use disorder. There are many different conceptions of what it means to have an addiction, and while everyone has the right to their own opinion, the true scientific definition of addiction is: “Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and the body that involves a compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences” (Center on Addiction). Although addition can be defined, I believe that you can never truly understand the effects addiction has on the mind and body of an individual, until you personally experience it take over the life of someone you care or love. Many develop an addiction to a certain drug, to alter their minds. Being addicted to a drug, means that person has a grave dependence physically as well as pscyhologically, to that substance. The concept of addiction has been around for age, but just in the last 50-60 years experts have proven what addiction is and why it occurs. Often times addition it is said to be caused from a chemical imbalance in the brain, not allowing individuals to be able to regulate their manipulation of alcohol and/or drugs to a professionally prescribed dose. No one person in this world is the same therefore, there is no one specific way for addiction to begin. In some instances, as soon as an individual takes their first hit of a drug or sip of alcohol, they could potentially be addicted. Others could use the drug or alcohol occasionally for a period of time before a dependence is developed. The unknown, individualized reaction and addiction potential is what further complicates the issue.

The two most widely used and addictive, age-legal substances are alcohol and nicotine. However, illegal drugs are usually the most dangerous, since they are largely man made and can be tampered with at any stage of the manufacturing, distributing, or selling process. Often times, addiction starts out with prescription painkillers being given to individuals by their doctors, usually after a bad injury or surgery, for legitimate use. Users can then become dependent on the pills. When the time comes and the doctor stops prescribing them and cuts them off, it is often to late. In these situations, individuals are now addicted and still need the substance in their system, thus forcing them to turn to the “street drugs”, which are much more unknown and dangerous. The most common drug addicts use to replace prescription painkillers is heroin, because it is also a drug that triggers the brain’s opioid receptors and therefore radiates the same effect as the pain pills. When the opioid receptors are activated, it causes a decrease in pain, giving the individual an “out-of-body” sensation, and sends them into a state of euphoria. A study was taken in 2014 that showed around 586,000 Americans 11 years of age and older were able to be classified with a heroin use disorder. Unfortunately, 10,000 individuals lost their lives to fatal heroin overdose in that same year. Since 2014 the numbers of overdoses has continued to rise each year.

Addiction is most definitely a disease that can be cured, but it is not an easy process at all. The most efficient way to treat an addiction problem and prevent relapses is through a mixture of behavioral therapy and medication. The biggest hurdle is each recovery treatment has to be altered to cater to every different patient’s drug use patterns, their medical and psychiatric problems, as well as problems with their environment and social groups. Sadly, the recovery process and rehabilitation centers are not easily affordable, especially since in most cases most addicts are unemployed with little to no money, and oftentimes homeless. Another factor that makes addicts weary to get off the drugs is the withdrawal they go through. A few of the symptoms drug users will experience are flu like symptoms, depression, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, body aches, and even seizures. Depending on the type of drug, the method of drug use whether it be swallowing, smoking, snorting, or injecting, how long the individual has been using, and a few different other factors determines how severe the symptoms are and how long they will last. In some of the extreme cases certain symptoms can last up to several months.

Mental illness is another disease just like addiction, that is largely widespread and very common throughout the United States. It has been proven that roughly 54 million Americans endure some form of mental illness in any given year. “Mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines” (Mental Health America). There is not just one generic form of mental illness. Every single individual is different and each brain’s composition processes things differently. There are currently over 200 forms of mental illnesses and with those, everyone’s symptoms are always different. Like with everything, there are ones that are more common in a population, and others that are more extensive and unique. Some of the most common mental illnesses include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, dementia, and schizophrenia. There is an abundance of factors that can cause an individual to develop a mental illness, and not just one incident will cause it. Mental disorders can be formed from an excessive amount of stress from a series of events or one specific event, environmental stresses, genetic factors, or biochemical imbalances.

Out of the handful of more common disorders, depression is the one illness that is the most common and diverse throughout the country. Even though it is very common, that does not take away from just how serious this disorder can be. Depression is a severe mood disorder, that will affect the way an individual thinks and feels. This disease also makes ordinary, day-to-day activities such as sleeping, getting out of bed, working, and even eating, much harder. Just like with the many different forms of mental illnesses, there is a number of different forms of depression. The different types include persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia. This type of depression is described and diagnosed by a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years. Postpartum depression is periods of “full-blown major depression during pregnancy or after delivery” (National Institute of Mental Illness). This particular disorder makes it very challenging for new mothers to carry out their duties. Psychotic depression comes about when an individual is experiencing symptoms of a full-blown depression period along with a form of psychosis, “such as having disturbing false fixed beliefs (delusions) or hearing or seeing upsetting things that others cannot hear or see (hallucinations)” (National Institute of Mental Illness). Another form of depression is the seasonal affective disorder. This type of depression is diagnosed when the symptoms of depression activate during the winter months. This is usually caused by the decrease in natural light. For this type of depression, the symptoms will go away with the arrival of the spring and summer months, and will habitually come back every year. Although bipolar disorder is a different disease than depression, it is traditionally classified within the same list because “someone with bipolar disorder experiences episodes of extremely low moods that meet the criteria for major depression” (National Institute of Mental Illness). However, bipolar disorder also causes an individual to experience tremendously “high- euphoric or irritable- moods”. These moods are known as “mania” or “hypomania” for the less extreme cases.

Again, just like with addiction, mental illnesses can be treated and oftentimes, cured. Recovery will be most effective when an individual seeks treatment early on in the disease, and they must continue to put forth a strong will throughout the entire process of their own recovery. Every individual being so distinctively different is what makes our world so unique, however it also makes figuring out diseases like these and treatments that work that much harder, because no one treatment will work the same for every individual. But thankfully with so many recent advancements in our technology and medical techniques, professionals have been able to come up with numerous different treatments for any and every individual. One of the treatment processes is known as psychotherapy. This is a process that treats mental illness through therapy performed by trained mental health professionals. “Psychotherapy explores thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and seeks to improve an individual’s well-being” (Mental Health America). It is believed that the most effective way to encourage recovery is through a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Using medications is another way to promote recovery of an individual’s mental state. However, medication alone can not fully cure a mental illness. This route is used more so to lessen one’s symptoms. A support group can also be utilized to offer support to a group of people that struggle with a mental disorder. There is Complementary and Alternative Medicines that can be used as well, but these are not usually linked with the standard care methods. However, these can be used in replace of standard health practices or at the same time. In some of the severe cases, certain individuals many have to be hospitalized. This allows the patient to be monitored closely, be correctly diagnosed, and be in the presence of trained professionals that can alter their medications and dosages when and if it is needed. Some other options that can be explored are brain stimulation therapies, that are typically used when other treatments are not successful. One of the most common is the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This specific procedure requires the individual to be put under general anesthesia, and then small electric currents are sent through the brain. In doing this, it actually triggers a brief seizure on purpose. The main purpose of this particular treatment is to “cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental health conditions” (Mayo Clinic).

One of the largest debates is whether mental illnesses and substance abuse are connected. “The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reports that there is a ‘definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances’” (Dual Diagnosis.Org). It cannot be proven indefinitely that one of these diseases causes the other, but there are definite factors that “can contribute to the comorbidity between substance use disorders and mental illness” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). The first factor is the risk factors that lead to both substance abuse and mental illnesses. The two of these diseases have been proven to be caused by “overlapping factors such as genetic and epigenetic vulnerabilities, issues with similar areas of the brain, and environmental influences such as early exposure to stress or trauma” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). Another factor is the fact that “mental illnesses can contribute to drug use and addiction” (National Institute on Drug Abuse). This is because many individuals with a mental disorder tend to turn to drug use, to self-medicate. Lastly, it is said that drug use and addictions can lend a hand in the development of a mental illness. When drugs are used, it can alter some of the areas in the brain that certain mental disorders trigger as well. Continuing this use can cause a number of mental illnesses to fully emerge and take a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. There have been multiple national surveys that have proven that about half of the individuals struggling with a mental illness at some point in their life, will battle a substance use disorder as well, and vice versa. In a community-based substance use disorder treatment program there is over 60 percent of adolescents that will meet the criteria for also having a mental illness. Today 38 percent of alcohol consumption, 44 percent of cocaine consumption, and 40 percent of cigarette consumption comes from patients suffering with a mental disorder. It is also believed that it is most common for drug use to start in adolescents, which is also when mental illness usually first appear.

In conclusion, both substance addictions and mental illnesses are equally as common, serious, and life-threatening. They both are unfortunately continuing to rise around the world and they are not being taken as serious as they should be. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and while it is often believed that addiction and mental illness is all in your head, that has been scientifically proven to be incorrect. Both are very legitimate diseases and “even though everyone’s symptoms will be different, everyone matters and every single individual’s issues are just as valid as the next persons” (Christine Spencer). “An addiction and a mental illness is just as valid and serious as a cancer…all three are capable of ruining and often times ending lives” (Christine Spencer).

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