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Mental Health Disorders and Addiction: A  Hidden Link?

Mental Health Disorders and Addiction: A Hidden Link?

Similar to the proverbial argument regarding which came first–the chicken or the egg–is also another argument that has concerned mental health experts: Does mental health  disorders cause addiction, or vice versa?

Although there are several studies that suggest that addiction is less considered now as a moral concern but as a mental issue, one thing is obvious: there is a definite link between mental health problems and being susceptible to addictive behaviors.

What causes the link?

It may be surprising to many, but the recent statistics show that 38% of all alcohol consumptions, 44% of all cocaine consumptions and 40% of all cigarette usage were all reported to be from those with mental health problems. With such a large percentage, it may conclusive to think that addiction can be further researched in a mental health  perspective. Some of the assumptions about this link include:

  • Brain chemistry – people with mental health issues have a disrupted brain  chemical composition. This can lead to impaired decision-making, compulsive behaviors, and reliance to substances that help the individual ‘feel and think  better’.
  • Addiction further aggravates mental health problems – as an individual relies on  sources of addiction, the brain chemicals further get disrupted, leading to higher  tolerance points. The addiction makes the mental illness more severe, leading to  a greater loss of control towards impulses.

What are some commonly associated addictions to  mental illnesses?


Mental illness is a common co morbidity of a drug abuse problem. This is because illegal drugs can alter the chemical composition of the brain. Different par of the brain  are responsible for completing certain tasks. There is a part called the limbic system, which is considered as the portion of the brain that controls its concept of pleasure and reward. Feelings of pleasure can bring us to make physical actions, such as when we accomplish goals in life. The limbic system can be altered dramatically when drugs  enter the body.

Drugs can interfere with how neurons, or the brain cells, communicate with each other.  Cocaine or amphetamines can mimic the neurotransmitters located in the brain, and  send large amounts of pleasurable responses that causes the person to rely on drugs  as a source of pleasure. Basically, the chemicals brought about by the drugs abuse the  brain’s reward system, rendering it difficult to obtain pleasure without the addiction.

The overreliance on drugs may cause irrational behaviors, aggression, or lack of  motivation when the addiction is not satisfied. 


According to recent figures, Alcohol abuse is the most commonly abused substance.  Over 17.5 million Americans suffer from alcoholism, which takes the top spot compared  to other forms of addiction.

When a person has a mental health issue, his brain may seek ‘pleasure stimuli’ from the  environment. It turns out that ethanol, the main component found in alcoholic  beverages, also supplies feelings of happiness and comfort when it reacts with  chemicals in the brain. Ethanol encourages the production of dopamine, a  neurotransmitter which handles sensations of pleasure. With continued alcoholism, a  person’s limbic system may be so impaired that it often needs a higher consumption to  release enough dopamine levels.


Anixety is known as the most common mental health disorder, as 40 million Americans  suffer from it. It is interesting to note that overeating is often found as a co-occurring  conditions found in people with anxiety problems. Often, individuals with anxiety find  ways to cope with feelings of nervousness, worry, and unease through formation of  different habits.

The term “comfort eating” takes on a whole new level, as a person with anxiety would  binge on excess amounts of food to masks negative thoughts and feelings. The  individual feels out of control and would often eat as a cause of compulsion to cope  with the mental health problem.


Gambling may appear to be harmless in some small extent, but it also provides  disruption in the brain’s reward system. People with mental health issues also have  gambling addiction as a co-occurring problem. Unlike other substances that may be  easily accessible and abused, people initially find gambling as a form of entertainment.

The entertainment then turns into an addiction when the person experiences constant  adrenaline rush brought about by the hopes of earning large sums of money. The brain  is ‘tricked’ into thinking that one more chance will bring the reward, giving feelings of  compulsion to continue gambling even if the person is on the losing end.

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Discovering the link

With more evidence presenting that mental health problems often appear with  symptoms of addiction, the medical community is actively finding ways to address both  issues in an evidence-based manner. 

More researchers are invested in treating substance abuse as an associated problem of mental condition, to target the issue at its source. This is why understanding a person’s  case history is important–by pinpointing the accurate causes, people can have better chances to recover from addiction.

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Updated: September 7, 2019 — 12:14 am


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