Taking a Closer Look at Substance Use Disorder During Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The connection between mental health and addiction is often stuck in a grey area between mental health providers and recovery support systems and it is important to discuss. According to research, nearly 60% of adolescents that are in substance use treatment have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis.


High rates of comorbid substance use disorders and anxiety disorders can be seen in our own community. Nearly 1 in 4 individuals that suffer from one of these serious mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder.


Correlation Between Two Disorders


The correlation between the dual diagnoses of mental health disorders and substance use disorder happen for many reasons. The cause of mental illness is still a question in the research community but it is generally accepted that a complex interplay of genetics, the environment, and other factors are sources.


If you are at risk for a mental health issue, research shows that addiction to alcohol or drugs may be more likely to spark symptoms of an existing mental illness. Consumption of alcohol or drugs can also interact with medications such as antidepressants, anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers, making them less effective at managing symptoms and delaying your recovery.


Individuals with co-occurring mental illness and addiction tend to self medicate, and seek various substances that make them feel that they are in control of their mental state.


Co-Occurring Diagnosis


It can be extremely difficult to identify a case of dual diagnosis and often times either the mental illness or substance use disorder goes undiagnosed.


Mental health professionals and recovery services will often consider questions like these to investigate a potential co-occurring diagnosis:

  • Do you use alcohol or drugs to cope with unpleasant memories or feelings, to control pain or the intensity of your moods, to face situations that frighten you, or to stay focused on tasks?

  • Have you noticed a relationship between your substance use and your mental health? For example, do you get depressed when you drink? Or drink when you’re feeling anxious or plagued by unpleasant memories?

  • Has someone in your family grappled with either a mental disorder, or addiction to drugs or alcohol?

  • Do you feel depressed, anxious, or otherwise out of balance even when you’re sober?

  • Have you previously been treated for either your addiction or your mental health problem?

Treatment for Both


The best treatment for co-occurring disorders is an integrated approach, where both the substance abuse problem and the mental disorder are treated simultaneously. Whether a mental health or substance use problem came first, long-term recovery depends on getting treatment for both disorders.


Mislabeling, rejecting, or failing to recognize patients with dual disorders can result in inadequate addiction treatment. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and assistance should be individualized. In both spaces, peers can play a vital role in understanding the needs of the individual and working to strike a balance between behavioral health and recovery in treatment.



Please contact our Alive RVA Warmline at (833) 473-3782 if you are in need of assistance, or check out our resources page to learn more about our recovery programs.

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