The Link Between Opioid Use and Mental Health

Many friends and family members of those who struggle with drug abuse notice that their loved ones who fall into using substances, like opioids, wrestle with mental health issues as well. This observation isn’t just in their heads; in fact, research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that about half of people that struggle with their mental health will also fall victim to a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lifetime.

October 10th was National Mental Health Day. To honor this day, we will be discussing the role mental health can play in substance use and what treatment options exist for those dealing with both issues.

Do Mental Health Issues Cause Drug Use?

Trying to figure out what comes first, drug use or mental health issue, is a bit like the old “chicken or the egg” adage. Opioid use, as well as other drugs, is common among people with mental health disorders because both of these conditions share many of the same risk factors. For example, some of the same genes that are linked with addiction are also associated with mental health issues and disorders. Traumatic experiences that occur at any age, but especially during childhood, can put people at higher risk for both disorders by changing a person’s genetic expression.

Additionally, many people with mental illnesses use illicit substances as a way to self-medicate, or regulate the mental anguish they face on a regular basis. Further, drug use can prompt brain rewiring that leads a person to have a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder, especially when drug use starts at an early age. It’s incorrect to say that one factor, mental illness or drug use, causes one or the other, but they are closely related for these reasons.

What are the Treatment Options for People Struggling with Mental Health and Addiction?

Fighting a drug addiction or a mental illness is incredibly difficult on their own, and recovering from the two can feel overwhelming and impossible. Fortunately, advances in the mental health field make recovery from either condition, or both, more likely than ever. Some treatment options that exist for people struggling with both mental health and drug use include the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): works by helping a person take control of destructive thoughts and beliefs, leading to lasting behavior change. CBT is typically a combination of talk and behavior therapy.
  • Therapeutic Communities (TC): relies on an in-patient, residential approach that allows a person to connect with others and form meaningful social bonds. In-patient Alcoholics Anonymous centers and Oxford Houses are both examples of TCs.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): equips individuals with new ways to cope with difficult thoughts and emotions. This type of therapy was created specifically to combat self-harm behaviors like drug use.

Although it can feel daunting to seek treatment for drug use and mental health issues, getting professional help is critical in helping individuals overcome these complex conditions.

Get the Help You Need

Unfortunately, finding professional help for drug use and mental health disorders isn’t as easy as it initially sounds. There are many barriers that can stand in the way, including financial constraints, not knowing where to go, not wanting to be perceived differently by community, and a fear of being committed.

If you or a loved one want to find help, an excellent first step is to speak with a primary care physician. Your doctor can give you referrals to those who specialize in mental health and substance use, and they can provide you with other helpful resources. If you do not have health insurance, or you cannot afford your copay, many cities offer free clinics that can allow you to see a doctor at no cost. Other local agencies also may be able to help connect you to the help that you need.

Overcoming mental health issues and/or opioid use can seem like a never ending battle, but it can be done with proper treatment and interventions.


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