Monday, September 1, 2014

Is there a connection between Substance Abuse and Mental Illness? - Guest Post

One of the basic truths of addiction and mental illness is that they occur together.  As a professional, that was obvious to me.  When I worked in impatient treatment settings, I was exposed to that over and over.  In one memorable case, I watched as a patient detoxed from pretty serious drug and alcohol use....and started to act exactly like Maxine.  From the anger and the lack of willingness to bathe all the way to the fact that she would avoid treatment activities.  As a matter of fact, she would do exactly what Maxine would do.  She sat in the patient break room smoking cigarettes and staring off into the distance for hours on end.  For me, that was the clearest view I have ever had about the relationship between substance abuse and mental illness. I saw the connection between substance abuse and mental illness in most of  my clients.  While I'm not a doctor, I did work with them.  And being relatively familiar with what mental illness looks like, personally and professionally, I am capable of making an educated guess.  Especially since most of my jobs provided me with access to medical assessments.

The other question is, what came first, the chicken or the egg?  Does a person start to abuse drugs and alcohol because of existing mental illness?  Or does the underlying mental illness occur because of the drug use? That is an issue for the doctors to determine.  My interest in this is with the result.  When someone is 'self-medicating' a mental illness, recovery is even more complex.  It means that the person will have even more roadblocks to maintaining sobriety.  Just say NO won 't work.  That is why I believe that quality mental health care is an important part of the recovery process.

Thankfully, I haven't personally experienced the complications of a dual-diagnosis.  My problems with treating my depression are more likely to be connected to not wanting to take drugs.  Even drugs that are likely to help me.  But I really do 'get' the complexity of recovery from addiction combined with serious mental illness.  I also think that true understanding about addiction AND mental illness are enabled by understanding the relationship.  So, as part of that, I am very interested in examining the connection.  I am also interested on using that education to talk with you.  So we can begin to recognize and fight stigma.  Together.  Let me know what you have experienced regarding the relationship between mental illness and substance abuse.  And how that relationship impacts efforts to recover.  What has helped you or your loved one?  Or are you still struggling?  I look forward to hearing your story.

By Judy Schwartz-Naber

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