Mental illness and substance abuse appear together so often that many wonder whether one leads to the other.

In truth, this is a question we can’t answer. There’s a lot we don’t know about how genetics and brain chemistry impact our chances of this dual diagnosis.

Here are 7 things you need to understand about substance abuse and mental illness.

1. Dual diagnosis is more common than you may think

If you’re struggling with mental illness and a substance abuse problem, you are not alone. One-third of all people living with mental illnesses also struggle with drug addiction. On the flip-side, about a third of all alcoholics and half of all drug users report having a mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, men are more likely to develop a dual diagnosis than women.

2. Depressed people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs

Self-medicating is a term that’s used to describe the act of abusing drugs or alcohol to mask the symptoms of a mental health issue. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 20 percent of people who suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder also struggle with substance abuse.

Psychology Today reports that anxiety disorders and depression are often the result of an over-activity in the brain. Alcohol and other substances that depress the central nervous system may calm nerves and dispel some symptoms.

3. Opioids can mimic the effects of anti-depressants

Many street drugs work on the same neurotransmitters that regulate mood to inhibit or activate the dopamine system. This is why people sometimes substitute street drugs like heroin for their medications. This behaviour often leads to addiction.

4. Poor people are at greater risk

The correlations between poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are strong. No one is sure exactly why this is so, but experts suspect that the stress, despair and poor health habits play a large role.

5. You may inherit addiction or mental illness

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) estimates that genes may account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

Genes may also predispose people to develop mental illness. In fact, research has linked five major mental illnesses to the same genetic variations.

The NIH also notes that genetics may make a person more likely to receive a dual diagnosis.

6. Early intervention is important

Although substance abuse can happen at any time, drug use often begins during adolescence. This is also when the first signs of mental illness most often appear.

The brain is still changing during adolescence, and this may leave teens vulnerable to substance abuse and mental illness.

During the teenage years, the frontal cortex is still developing. This is the part of the brain that enables us to assess situations and make sound decisions. Drug abuse and mental illnesses that develop during adolescence can have lasting effects.

Address symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse at their first signs to help avoid future problems.

7. Change is difficult and takes time

With a dual diagnosis, it’s crucial to treat both substance abuse and mental illness at the same time. Because of this, patients should choose a rehab program that specialises in treating a dual diagnosis.

This is a process that takes time, so it’s important to have patience with yourself and the process.

If someone you love is showing the signs of mental illness and drug abuse, talk to a rehabilitation specialist as soon as possible. This is a common problem, but it’s important that to address it before symptoms worsen.

Article provided by Trevor McDonald