The Connection Between Opioid Addiction and Mental Health

Addiction can strike anyone at any time. The hold that drugs have on addicts does not discriminate based on race, age, or gender. Science has concluded, however, that drug abuse is exacerbated in the presence of mental illness, therefore binding those with poor mental health to the potential for drug abuse.

Mental Health and Opioid Addiction

There are many cases where mental illness has led to drug abuse. Historically, those with mental illness have abused drugs as a form of self-medication. Both addictions and mental illnesses are caused by a multitude of factors like brain defects, genetic predisposition, and/or early exposure to trauma or stress

The areas of the brain involved in drug use and mental illnesses overlap one another, suggesting that the changes to the brain caused by one can affect the other. Dopamine levels in the brain are typically affected by addictive substances, and they have been found to be involved in depression and other mental illnesses. Anxiety and depression are the two most prominent mental health disorders in the United States among adults, at an estimated 40 million diagnosed. According to the Washington Post, of those adults with mental health disorders, 18.7 percent of them are opioid users compared to 5 percent among adults without mental disorders.

The Connection Between Opioid Addiction and Mental Health: An addict battles the urge to shoot up.

The Connection Between Opioid Addiction and Mental Health: An addict battles the urge to shoot up.

Adults with mental health disorders are twice as likely to use opioids long term. The Post goes on to mention it is estimated 51.4 percent of opioids prescribed are received by individuals with mental health disorders. Over the past 15 years, the number of opioids prescribed has quadrupled while the amount of pain experienced and the disabilities diagnosed has not changed.

Because there is a correlation between mood disorders and vulnerability to addiction, the diagnosis, and treatment of a mental disorder can help to reduce the risk of potential drug abuse. The correlation can go both ways, however, with drug users at risk of developing mental illnesses.

Expanded Treatment Options

When addressing the issue of opioid abuse and treatment options, it’s important to acknowledge the correlation between mental health and prescription opioid use. This allows the government to step in on a higher level and pass laws like the Affordable Care Act which expanded healthcare coverage to addicts and mentally ill individuals alike. This law had a profound effect on mental health and addiction treatment, expanding access to services and labeling them as “essential benefits” that must be covered. It is estimated that 220,000 people with mental disorders and opioid addictions now have coverage under ACA. In the past, one-third of private insurances plans did not cover substance abuse treatment, and those that did had strict limitations.

The 21st Century Cures Act was passed in December 2016 and provided $1 billion to expand drug treatment and to improve prescription drug monitoring programs. The money was delegated for use to train healthcare professionals on the best practices for addiction treatment and to aid in research on the most effective approaches to preventing dependency.

The expansion of healthcare coverage for addicts did not make up for the fact that there is a shortage of professionals in the healthcare field, however. According to Duquesne University, this year, 3.2 million nursing jobs are estimated to be available with a potential deficit of 200,000 nurses. This is unfortunate for addicts because the current opioid problem in America is bound to the nurses who help in the continuum of care for addicts. These nurses are responsible for overseeing the prevention, recovery, and treatment of addicts. So while the overall stigma of drug abuse has begun to change, and the government has acted accordingly, the resources available are still sparse.

Addressing Addiction Together

If treatment is not for you for whatever reason(s) you have, fear not, there is still help.  Johann Hari and scientists around the world have been fixated on the concept that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Humans inherently want to bond with other people on a deep level. The loss of these relationships and connections, or lack thereof, results in pain. Without that connection to others around, individuals seek substances and habits that fulfill the need for connection.

Dr. Peter Cohen says that communities play a vital role in recovery from opioids. The act of discussing addiction in a non-judgemental manner can help to reduce the stigma surrounding both mental illness and substance abuse, bringing more open communication and support to those in recovery or those seeking recovery.

It’s nearly impossible to break the cycle of addiction alone, as most of us know. As a country, there are many avenues of recovery and treatment available to addicts, but true empowerment and support comes from the local community level.

One out of every 10 addicts in the world who need treatment gets it. This leaves the majority in a cycle of addiction. One way that addicts can work towards sobriety is by being invested in themselves and their recovery. In 2015, an app called Squirrel Smart Recover app was created aimed at heroin users. It is not meant as an alternative to Narcotics Anonymous, but to use as a supplemental strategy. These apps help addicts connect to people.

Addiction apps help people curb their cravings by giving addicts the ability to reach out to their resources (counselors, mentors, etc) when they feel the need to use or relapse.  Allowing people to contact one another via text creates a streamlined process that helps people in crisis receive support far faster than traditional treatment centers or recovery groups. These apps help addicts track their sober days as well as log their emotions and stress levels over time. They also allow addicts to connect with others to when they feel a relapse coming on.

The best ways to dissolve opioid addiction comes from a combination of factors that help an abuser integrate back into the community. Whether the path to sobriety is attainable through legislation, coming together as a community, or investing oneself in an accountability practice through smartphone apps, it is attainable. Focus on connecting with those around you to get the most out of your treatment options.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash