How Substance Abuse Makes Mental Health Problems Worse

How Substance Abuse Makes Mental Health Problems Worse

When people with mental health challenges, like depression or schizophrenia, also have substance abuse problems, their overall health can deteriorate rather quickly. Medical professionals have coined a term for those who simultaneously face substance abuse and mental illness: this is known as a concurrent disorder, and sometimes you’ll hear the term “dual diagnosis” used as a synonym for a concurrent disorder. However, “dual diagnosis” is more ambiguous because it has differing definitions in the U.S. and Canada.

Canadian health professionals use “dual diagnosis” to refer to a person who suffers from a mental health condition as well as a developmental disability. In the U.S., a person with dual diagnosis is someone diagnosed with both mental illness and substance abuse, or chemical addiction. To be clear, using the term “concurrent disorder,” which has the same meaning in both Canada and the U.S., is the preferred way to describe a patient with mental illness and a substance abuse problem. Substance abuse almost always makes mental illness worse, or at least harder to treat. What are some of the ways that typical addiction disorders interfere with mental health conditions?

Drug Interactions

In many cases, drug treatment for mental illness can lead to an even greater substance abuse problem. A common case involves people with severe anxiety disorders who are prescribed drugs called benzodiazepines. If the person already has an addiction to pain-killers symptoms or sedatives, common treatments for anxiety could make the addiction worse. In some cases, medicines prescribed for one problem can lead to an adverse reaction with drugs the person is already taking.

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In psychiatry, there is always the danger of drug interactions among patients who take more than one medication. For those who suffer from severe substance abuse problems, doctors are always extremely cautious when prescribing an additional drug to treat any form of mental illness. A related problem for people with concurrent disorders is that a drug prescribed for one ailment interferes with a drug prescribed for a secondary illness. In some cases, medications can render each other useless. That means the patient is back to square one in terms of treatment.

Difficulty Assessing Symptoms

Mental health symptoms are hard enough to diagnose without the complication of substance abuse symptoms thrown into the mix. It’s standard protocol for doctors to consider substance abuse when a patient complains of mental problems, and vice-versa. That’s because so many of the symptoms for each type of disorder are similar. Tremors, hallucinations, extremely high levels of anxiety, inability to sleep, severe depression and bouts of euphoria are all symptoms characteristic of both mental illness and substance addiction.

Increased Risk of Overdose

One of the most dangerous aspects of a concurrent disorder is the risk of death or long-term mental disorders resulting from an overdose. Alcohol, for example, has a tendency to magnify, or even nullify, the effects of many drugs used to treat mental illness. If a patient is taking clozapine to control auditory hallucinations, for example, and has a concurrent problem with alcohol abuse, the results can be deadly. In some situations, when alcohol enhances the effects of psychiatric drugs, a patient can easily overdose and die. Or, if alcohol nullifies the effects of the drug, patients can suffer from suicidal thoughts and end up harming themselves.

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