The Little-Known Connection Between
Mental Health and Drug Abuse
Mental illnesses have been treated as an issue of moral failing since before psychology's founding as a science. That the same sort of Protestant ethos gets applied to drug abuse should come as no surprise. It's only a matter of adjusting the goalposts to determine who 'deserves' help.
Mental health and drugs have been intertwined since the beginning. Yet, it isn't until recent years that people have begun treating the two as intertwined. If you still see addiction as a moral failing, we sincerely hope this article will provide some education for you.
Mental Health and Drugs: Two Sides of the Same Coin
The numbers don't lie. Nearly twenty-nine percent of all people afflicted with mental illness abuse some sort of substance, be it drugs or alcohol. Half of the people suffering from severe mental illnesses also become affected by substance abuse. And just over a third of alcoholics and over half of the surveyed addicts have at least one severe mental health issue.
Lest you doubt their veracity, these mental health and drug statistics come from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal in existence since 1883. But why are these two issues so closely interconnected?
Understanding the Mental Health Stigma
Mental health, and the issues therein, used to be an incredibly stigmatized subject. It wasn't something people would discuss in polite, or any, company. Sadly, despite great strides in recent years, many people who don't suffer from mental illness lack understanding or empathy for those who do.
Browse the self-help sectors of the internet and you'll come across swathes of people insisting that depression and anxiety are not mental illnesses. Rather, that feeling this way is "normal" and those struggling with it just need to learn to "deal with it". Distressingly, according to a poll conducted by United Health Services in 2019, around twenty-five percent of respondents did not believe that depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse should be classified as mental illnesses.
With such a strong stigma attached to suffering from mental illness, it's difficult for those experiencing symptoms to open up. If someone can't open up to receive a diagnosis or support through legal channels, they'll turn to whatever means they can find for relief. Even illicit drugs.
Psychiatry and Privilege
Stigma aside, there are many other factors that determine whether or not someone can access the help they need. Chief among these is someone's access to psychiatric help. While you can find free mental health resources, many of these are not optimized to deal with severe issues requiring medication.
If you don't have insurance (and sometimes, even if you do), appointments with a regular therapist can be expensive. Without those appointments, it may be impossible for some people to get a diagnosis, allowing them access to the care that they need. This proves especially true if their condition is a personality disorder or an uncommon one.
Another point to consider is that in rural areas, mental health services may be nonexistent or connected with religious groups. This proves problematic for LGBT youth seeking treatment in those areas and can lead to many taking their treatment into their own hands.
Pharmaceuticals and Economics
We cannot discuss the connection between mental health and drugs without discussing the utter failure that is United States healthcare. Many still cannot afford healthcare coverage, even after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In addition, the plans one can purchase short-term or even through the ACA may not offer prescription drug coverage.
This means, even if one is fortunate enough to receive a mental health-related diagnosis, they won't be able to afford the medication to treat it.
Let's put this into perspective. Without insurance or coupons, a thirty-day supply of Zoloft, the most common antidepressant on the market, costs over $139. A small bag of heroin will set you back less than the price of a Netflix subscription. And, of course, a case of beer, the more common form of self-medication for depression, costs even less than that.
At this point, it should be a matter of simple math. If you live from paycheck to paycheck, which would you rather spend? A hundred dollars or more on antidepressants, or less than twenty on drugs or booze?
Correlation or Causation?
When discussing drugs and mental health problems, figuring out whether they correlate or cause one another can prove tricky. Those struggling with mental illness may turn to drugs to cope with their most distressing symptoms, so there is a clear correlation. However, certain mind-altering substances cause existing mental illnesses to worsen or create psychotropic symptoms.
Let's take cocaine as an example. If someone suffering from depression snorts cocaine to increase their drive and motivation, the high they receive allows them to get things done. People see them accomplishing things and expect more from them, forcing them to use cocaine more.
As their physical dependence on cocaine increases, their brain produces less and less serotonin. This worsens their original depression, forcing them to use even more cocaine. Thus, the downward spiral continues. Unless someone steps in to help, this endless chicken and egg will lead them to an early grave.
Justice and Rehabilitation
However, even getting someone to step in can prove difficult. Not only do people in the addict's life enable their abuse, but many abandon them in their hour of need out of a desire to avoid enabling them. In addition, while programs like The Hope House exist and help many people, they rely on people being able to afford their services.
If you're middle class or above and have access to health insurance that covers rehabilitation services, then you can receive the help you need. However, if you're poor, or don't have the proper support or insurance, you can expect your "rehabilitation center" to arrive in the form of a county jail.
Whether you're a user or a dealer, if you're caught with illicit drugs and don't have a great deal of money to wave at the problem, you'll find yourself in prison. Prison is not an optimal environment for addiction recovery, and many incarcerated for drug charges go out to use drugs again.
As such, we should prioritize treating mental health and drug addiction as both social and public health issues.
What to Do If You're Struggling
We've spoken at length about how the system fails many who seek help for their addiction. However, if the connection between mental health and drugs seems all too real for your life, don't give in to despair. There are resources out there for you.
The best things you can do for your wellbeing are:
Seek Proper Support
Please, for your own sake and everyone else's, find a group that can support you. Seek out those with similar struggles who have sought help, fought back, and won. Don't surround yourself with those who only worsen your mental health and who refuse to understand where you've been.
Remember That One Relapse Is Not the End
Relapses, as much as we wish they didn't happen, are a part of the recovery process. Try to be gentle with yourself. It's only the end of your journey if you decide to leave it behind. You can get back on the wagon, and keep on your path to recovery.
Keep Hope Alive
We won't lie, it's challenging to keep on the path when you're undergoing withdrawals or experiencing your mental illness symptoms at their worst. However, both mental health issues and substance abuse are treatable. Thousands before you have undergone the same struggles and come out the other side. You can too!
If You Know Someone Struggling
If you know someone in your life struggling with mental health and drugs, you're not helpless. You can offer them your support by:
Helping Them Research Treatment Options
Navigating the minefield of the internet for appropriate treatment options can prove difficult even when we're in a decent state of mind. Imagine how hard it must be for your loved one to sort through the mire. By helping them research their treatment options, you improve their chances of getting the help they need.
Offering Financial Help and Emotional Support
If your loved one can't afford rehab but you can, consider offering them that financial support. If you can't, and can't help them research their options, offer them your emotional support as they cope with the symptoms of their to-this-point untreated mental health disorder. It might be difficult, but it's worth it to help save their life.
Reviewing the Connection
Mental health and drugs are deeply intertwined, as the latter often gets used to treat the former. This is due to many factors, such as socioeconomic privilege, healthcare access, and criminal justice concerns. However, with proper support from loved ones, anyone can recover from both of these issues.
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