Mental illness is prominent in the United States, yet it is not discussed as often as physical illnesses. Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are serious medical conditions that require diagnosis and treatment, yet there is a stigma attached to them that is not associated with physical health issues. We hope to shed some light on mental illness, spread awareness of it, and help readers understand the strong connection between mental illness, addiction, and suicide to lessen the stigma and help those who are affected by it in some way.
Mental illness patients turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate
Patients with mental disorders often turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their diagnosis and/or symptoms. Some people who suffer from depression sometimes choose to take illegal drugs because they think they feel better when they experience the high caused by the drugs. Unfortunately, the low they experience when the drugs wear off is enhanced by their mental disorder and makes their condition worse. Similarly, mental illness patients who drink exacerbate their symptoms because alcohol is a depressant.
The National Bureau of Economic Research reports a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances.” In fact, mental disorder patients consume 38% of alcohol, 44% of cocaine, and 40% of cigarettes. People with anxiety drink as a way to feel more comfortable in social and work situations, and patients who battle panic attacks take prescription medications such as Xanax or Valium to calm their symptoms or prevent attacks. People with depression also turn to Adderall, cocaine, or crystal meth to increase their energy levels. The problem, of course, arises when the patients need to drink more or increase their dosage because they abuse the alcohol or drugs and then become addicted to them.
Mental health patients sometimes experience mental health issues as a result of their substance abuse issues, which more severely affect some populations over others. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health reports “African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic Whites,” and the rate of illegal drug use among African Americans ages 12 and older was 2.2% higher than the national average. African American mental illness patients are at a higher risk of becoming addicts.
Both mental illness and addiction are risk factors for suicide
Depression and other mood disorders are the number one risk factor for suicide: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that mental illness is the attributing cause in 90% of suicides. Alcohol and drug abuse ranks a close second. Addiction greatly increases the likelihood of suicide in mental health patients, and they often use drugs or alcohol to commit suicide. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 33% of people who die from suicide are under the influence of drugs, especially oxycodone or heroin, or alcohol. Addicts also have a rate of depression that is three to four times higher than the general public, which makes treatment for both disorders critical.
The National Institute on Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area determined that nearly 33% of people who die by suicide have a substance abuse disorder in conjunction with a diagnosable mental illness. Furthermore, the study found that male alcoholics are three times more likely to be depressed than the general population, and that alcohol-dependent women are four times more likely to suffer from depression.
Alcoholics are five times more likely to commit suicide than non-alcoholics, and alcoholism itself is associated with nearly 50% of all suicides. Addicts and alcoholics are more impulsive, which makes them more likely to attempt suicide and less likely to ask for help. This is especially true for people with bipolar disorder who are in the midst of a depressive episode.
Diagnosis and treatment are key
Unfortunately, it is all too common for mental illness patients to go undiagnosed and untreated for years. Studies show that 76%-85% of serious mental illness cases go untreated in low- and middle-income countries, and 35%-50% of cases go untreated in high-income countries. It also is worth noting that mental disorders frequently lead to other problems, from HIV, to heart and pulmonary diseases, to an increased risk of homelessness, poverty, incarceration, or institutionalization.
Obviously, it is crucial for people who think they or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness to seek professional medical care. A doctor can diagnose the disorder and start a treatment plan so that the person with mental illness can lead a productive life. Friends and family members of the mental illness patient also can become educated and offer help and support to the patient.
Jennifer Woodson enjoys serving the public as a writer for PublicHealthCorps.org. The site is dedicated to putting the public back into public health by serving as a hub of reputable and useful public information on health topics.
Featured image by Time to Change.