Is Drug Addiction a Mental Illness?

The question used to be: is drug addiction a disease or a choice? But we know much more about addiction than we have ever known before.

Addiction of any kind is a mental health condition. Drug addiction is a mental illness, not a crime or a weakness. 

It alters our brain chemistry in fundamental ways, changing the normal structure of our reward system, our needs and desires, and other important characteristics.

Normal ways of thinking, behaviors, and habits become overridden by the compulsive need to drink or use drugs

The longer our reward systems and other critical brain functions are clouded this way, the harder it becomes to break the cycle.

Drug dependence or addiction involves compulsive use, higher tolerances, and withdrawal symptoms when you stop using. 

The Official Definition of Addiction

The Official Definition of AddictionThe official definition of addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.

In simpler terms, addiction is compulsive drug seeking despite negative consequences. 

These negative consequences may pertain to all aspects of life, including your physical health, mental health, work-life, finances, relationships, and criminal record.

No aspect of our lives is safe from the far-reaching impacts of addiction.  

The disease concept of addiction dictates that addiction is a chronic disease, like asthma or diabetes.

There are no cures to these diseases, but there are treatments that can help you control the symptoms. 

Addiction treatments have allowed millions of individuals to live normal, healthy lives.

Addiction is both a mental illness and a complex brain disorder. Overcoming it requires a compassionate, personalized, and well-rounded approach. 

The DSM Definition of Mental Illness

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a valuable reference for clinicians.

It offers descriptions and symptom lists of all American Psychiatric Association (APA) classified mental disorders. 

The DSM definition of mental illness is a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. 

When we look at the strict definition, it’s easy to see why and how addiction could be classified as a mental illness.

The psychological component is where addiction overlaps with other mental illnesses. 

The idea that addiction has more to do with willpower than brain chemistry or biology is a damaging one.

Addiction is a complex disease. There is much more to it than most people realize. 

The Link Between Drugs and Mental Health

Diseases that affect our mental health and addictions often occur together.

Substance abuse disorders and mental health disorders have many of the same root causes, symptoms, and side effects.

Researchers have studied the link between drugs and mental health for many years. 

What they have discovered is that many who regularly abuse drugs are also diagnosed with mental health disorders.

This can happen in the reverse order, too. Many who have been diagnosed with mental health disorders may later be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. 

How Common are Co-Occurring Disorders?

How Common are Co-Occurring DisordersMood and anxiety-based disorders are some of the most common that occur alongside addiction because they impact the brain in similar ways.

Several studies have compared substance use rates among those with mood disorders to substance use rates in individuals with no mood disorders. 

The results shed light on the link between drugs and mental health, particularly when it came to depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder.

Individuals with depression are about twice as likely to have a substance use disorder

Those with bipolar disorder are about seven times as likely to have a substance use disorder.

There are higher rates of substance abuse among those with anxiety disorders, as well.

The same study that provided these findings showed a similar pattern among cocaine abusers. 

Cocaine and Mood Disorders

Of 298 cocaine abusers seeking treatment, 61% of them had a history of mood disorders.

There are three categories that experts use to explain the high co-occurrence of mood disorders and addiction: 

  • Disorder fostering disorder
  • Overlapping neurobiological pathways
  • Underlying genetic factors 

When an addiction and mental health disorder co-exist, the resulting condition is called a dual diagnosis.

In the next section, we’ll break down the three common theories listed above, explaining why they occur. 

Understanding Your Dual Diagnosis – Disorder Fosters Another Disorder

Disorder fostering disorder is, essentially, what we described earlier; these disorders feed off each other.

The pathological effects of a substance use disorder or mood disorder may increase the risk for the other. 

This would explain why someone would resort to alcohol or drugs to cope with the symptoms of their mental health condition.

Or why prolonged substance abuse may bring about mood changes and degradation, ultimately prompting the symptoms of a mental health disorder. 

Understanding Your Dual Diagnosis – Biology

Another theory that explains why dual diagnoses occur is overlapping neurological pathways.

Simply put, certain events and substances sensitize our brain cells. Substances like cocaine and alcohol sensitize our neurons. 

And this sensitization may contribute to the progression from occasional to semi-frequent to intense use of substances, as well as degraded mood patterns.

Many experts believe that neurobiological sensitization can promote both mood disorders and drug dependence.  

Understanding Your Dual Diagnosis – Genetics

Underlying genetic factors are a common thread in the development of both mood disorders and addictions.

While there is some speculation in the other two categories, research has shown a definitive connection between genetics and substance abuse and genetics and mood disorders. 

This explains why a child with even one alcoholic parent is four times more likely to become an alcoholic later in life.

Biology plays a significant role in our lives, even when we are not aware of it.

But that does not mean that we can’t be the ones to end that generational curse. 

Getting Support for Mental Illness

Getting Support for Mental IllnessGetting support for a co-occurring addiction and mental health disorder starts here.

We offer a highly specialized dual diagnosis program that addresses both concerns at once.

After all, this is the only way to effectively improve either condition. 

The problem with many treatment programs is that they only address the addiction or the mental health disorder, not both.

With this type of approach, problems often abound.

Treating only one allows the other to remain and wreak havoc on your mental state. 

If you treat the addiction alone, the mental health disorder can spark symptoms like depression and anxiety, leading you to abuse alcohol or drugs to cope.

If you treat the mental health disorder alone, your drug or alcohol habits can prompt mental health disorder symptoms.

The best way to work toward a happy, healthy, sober future is to treat both conditions at once in a dual diagnosis program.

With both full-time and part-time treatment programs available, we make it easy to get the care and guidance you need – when, where, and how you need it.    

Treatment of Addiction and Dual Diagnosis Disorders

At Pathfinders Recovery Center, our addiction experts have helped countless individuals improve their health, habits, and relationships.

Our personalized programs and proven and holistic treatments provide the foundation for a better future. 

For more information, call our addiction specialists at (877) 224-0761.

We are available 24/7 to answer your questions, offer guidance, and verify your insurance.


  • 7580 E Gray Rd Suite 201 Scottsdale, AZ 85260
  • (877) 224-0761
  • Mon-Sun: 24x7
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