Is There a Connection Between Mental Health & Substance Use?

When substance use and mental health issues co-occur (at the same time), it becomes known as a “concurrent disorder.” This term is used to refer to a wide array of  combinations of problems, such as anxiety disorder and an alcohol problem, schizophrenia and cannabis dependence, borderline personality disorder and heroin dependence and bipolar disorder and problem gambling. People often choose a drug that is consistent with their mental health issues (ie. depressants with anxiety).

hands cupping a new seedling plant in a mound of fresh soil

More than 50% of people with substance use disorders have also had mental health problems at some point during their lifetime. When people have mental health problems, even limited substance use can worsen the problem. There is no simple cause of concurrent disorders. Mental health problems and substance use problems can affect each other in several ways:

  • Substance use can make mental health problems worse.
  • Substance use can mimic or hide the symptoms of mental health problems.
  • Sometimes people turn to substance use to “relieve” or forget about the symptoms of mental health problems.
  • Some substances can make mental health medications less effective.
  • Using substances can make people forget to take their medications. If this happens, the mental health problems may come back (relapse) or get worse.
  • When a person relapses with one problem, it can trigger the symptoms of the other problem.

Individuals have the best success when both problems are addressed at the same time, in a coordinated way. The treatment approach usually depends on the type and severity of the person’s problems. They might receive psychosocial treatments (individual or group
therapy) or biological treatments (medications), or often both. Although the overall treatment plan should consider both mental health and substance use, it is sometimes best to treat one at a time. However, some conditions are best treated at the same time. This may be done independently of each other, for example treating anxiety disorders and alcohol disorders at the same time, in different clinics, with different approaches.

Adapted from: Concurrent Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders: An Information Guide © 2004, 2010 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health