Skip to main content

What are mental health and addiction?


Addiction and mental health are separate conditions, but they can also be linked. To understand the relationship between them better, it helps to define each condition.

Mental health reflects how someone thinks, feels, and acts. It’s how the mind works emotionally, psychologically and socially. A mental health disorder disrupts a person’s ability to change their ways of thinking, feeling or behaving. We generally can manage our mental health, but a mental illness is usually outside of our control.1 According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 51.5 million adults had a mental illness in 20196. Someone with a mental health disorder may also suffer from an addiction or engage in addictive behavior.

An addiction is an urge to engage in behaviors or activities regularly that harm the user or those around them. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment and a person’s experiences. Someone with an addiction has difficulty controlling their behavior and feels symptoms such as anxiety, tremors, or nausea upon withdrawal. 

While there are different types of addiction, substance use disorder (misuse of alcohol or drugs) is one of the most prevalent. The SAMSHA also reported that in 2019, 20.4 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder in the past year.2 The number of adults who experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder was 9.5 million. About a third of people with mental illnesses and about half of those with severe mental illnesses abuse substances.3

Some individuals will turn to abusing substances in an attempt to deal with their mental illness. A person may misuse alcohol or drugs as a way to “numb” the adverse effects of mental illness. However, some drugs target brain receptors already affected by mental illness, making the user feel temporarily normal.  When someone has both, a mental illness and an addiction, that is what is known as a dual diagnosis or a “co-occurring” condition.

For those with an addiction, repeated misuse can result in the development of a mental illness. And, a long-term addiction, if left untreated, can worsen a mental illness.

Common Mental Health Disorders

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that some of the most common forms of mental illness in the U.S.4 are:

  • Phobias
  • Major depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Impulse-control disorders
  • Substance use disorders. 

Some of the most “seriously disabling” disorders are bipolar disorder, drug dependence, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The NIMH defines severe disorders as those that involve:

  • A suicide attempt within the prior 12 months with serious intent to carry it out
  • A work disability or serious limitation due to a mental or substance use disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Bipolar I or II disorder
  • Substance dependence with serious role impairment
  • An impulse-control disorder with repeated serious violence
  • Any disorder that resulted in an inability to function in a particular social role for 30 or more days in the year

Many of these disorders begin at some point in childhood or early adulthood. Researchers have found that the average age for the onset of anxiety and impulse-control disorders is eleven. Substance use disorders generally begin by age twenty and mood disorders by age thirty. People with more than one disorder tend to have had an earlier onset of the first disorder than those who have only one mental disorder.

Causes and Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders

People can develop a mental illness for many reasons throughout their lives. Contributing factors include1:

  • Biological influences, such as genes or brain chemistry
  • Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
  • A family history of mental health problems

Many people who have mental health disorders consider their symptoms a normal part of life or avoid treatment out of shame or fear5. Mental health conditions have certain symptoms, but generally speaking, you may need professional help if you experience the following:

  • Marked changes in personality, eating, or sleeping patterns
  • An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • A feeling of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities
  • Unusual or “magical” thinking
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others
  • Substance misuse
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior

Before seeking any treatment, see a doctor or a mental health professional to get an evaluation from an expert.

Common Forms of Addiction and Causes

Some of the most common forms of addiction include:

  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Abusing prescription drugs, such as opioids
  • Misusing cocaine, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, or other drugs
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Excessive video-game playing
  • Smoking
  • A compulsive need to have sex 
  • Watching an excessive amount of porn
  • Compulsive shopping

Mental health experts suggest that someone may turn to an addiction to temporarily relieve or reverse feelings of overwhelming helplessness.6 The person engages in these behaviors to cope with their problems, whether they’re physical, psychological, or emotional.

Anyone of any age or socioeconomic status can suffer from addiction. The risk factors for developing an addiction include:

  • A family history of substance abuse
  • A mental health disorder (the Mayo Clinic reports that those with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and OCD are more likely to develop an addiction)
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of family involvement
  • Early use of substances
  • Certain personality traits, such as workaholism and being highly competitive

Signs of an addiction include a lack of control over the use or the behavior, feeling guilty about it, and difficulties getting through the day without engaging in it.

Getting a Diagnosis and Treatment for Mental Illness or an Addiction

For an evaluation, consult your primary care doctor or a mental health professional. If your primary care doctor does not do mental illness or an addiction evaluations, they often can refer you to a medical practitioner that can.  

To make a diagnosis, the doctor will review your medical history, conduct a physical exam, and do any other necessary tests. He or she will also ask questions or have you fill-out questionnaires and, perhaps,  interview people who know you well or have them complete surveys.  

Treatment can include medication, therapy, or a combination of both, which are based on your needs and medical history. Depending on the severity of the condition, people with a mental health disorder or an addiction may need to stay at a treatment facility as part of their recovery.

Making Steps Toward Recovery

Because of a stigma attached to mental health and addiction, some people don’t get the help they need. Having these conditions, however, isn’t a sign of weakness. Seeking treatment for a better life is a sign of strength.

At Citizen Advocates, we treat addiction and mental health issues, and provide other supports to help . We can assess your condition and answer your questions. To find out more about how we can help you, contact us today. For more immediate assistance, call our 24-hour Crisis Hotline: (518) 483-3261 or (518) 891-5535.