Those with substance use disorders have historically been ostracized from the general public. Consider common judgments made toward those inflicted with the disease, such as “let them hit bottom” or “they don’t want [recovery] bad enough.”
What other disease do we know of in modern times where the person with the illness is cast aside? Or where they are given a derogatory identifier like “addict” or “alcoholic?”
Their humanity is ripped away and their substance use disorder defines their entire being. Many people I have known throughout the years who struggle with a substance use disorder have said, “If I knew this is how it played out, I would have made different choices.”
Addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, changing a person’s normal needs and desires, and replacing them with new priorities connected with seeking and using the drug. This results in compulsive behaviors to seek, obtain and use the substance, with a decreased ability to manage impulses. These behaviors continue despite experiencing negative consequences.
The change in brain structure and behavior is consistent with other mental illnesses, such as anxiety, major depressive or bipolar disorder, yet co-occurring disorders have long been treated as an exception—when they are very much the norm.
Many people who have a substance use disorder also develop other mental illnesses and vice versa. In fact, about half of people who experience a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives.
The connection between mental illness and substance use disorders is often made in adolescence when there is an increased risk of vulnerability due to limited skills to manage stress and uncomfortable or painful emotions.
The connection made between substance use as a way to solve the perceived problem of emotional pain is made quickly. The earlier this connection is made, the more challenging it is to not reinforce it.
People with a mental health condition may look to substances or alcohol to “self-medicate.” But what many discover is that the substance/alcohol may intensify the very symptoms from which they were seeking relief.