Is Addiction A Mental Illness?

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Is Addiction A Mental Illness?

A drug addiction, otherwise referred to as a substance use disorder (SUD), is a condition in which a person is unable to control their use of a substance despite the harmful consequences. People with drug addictions are intensely focused on the substance(s) in question, which can include alcohol, tobacco, prescription, and illicit drugs, to the point where they struggle to function without them and even neglect their other responsibilities. A major sign of addiction is when the individual continues to use drugs or alcohol even when they’re aware of the problems it causes or will cause. Because addiction is just as much mental as it is physical, many people have wondered, “Is addiction a mental illness?” Our rehab in Lake Worth, Florida, dives into this topic to further explain the difference as well as conditions called co-occurring disorders.


Is Drug Addiction a Mental Illness?

So, is addiction considered a mental illness? Yes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), drug addiction is a mental illness because it changes a person’s brain in fundamental ways. Long-term substance abuse can replace a person’s normal needs and desires with new priorities, such as seeking and using drugs or alcohol. The resulting compulsive behaviors weaken impulse control, despite the obvious and negative consequences, which are hallmarks of other mental disorders.


But how does this happen? Drugs like painkillers, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and alcohol are all addictive, ultimately because they activate the release of the chemical dopamine. Whether these drugs relax or excite the central nervous system, they all activate the release of dopamine, which plays a role in pain and reinforcing pleasurable behaviors. When a person uses any of these drugs, they may feel euphoric and either relaxed or energized. As they continue to use these substances, their physical tolerance begins to grow, requiring them to take higher doses for the same effect. Before they know it, they reach addiction, a point in which they’re so obsessed with getting high or intoxicated that they worry about little else.


Because addiction is a mental illness as well, drug rehabilitation facilities like our Lake Worth center offer drug therapy programs like biofeedback and EMDR to help patients understand the causes of their conditions and how their thoughts influence their behaviors. At Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, we’ve helped many patients overcome their SUDs by managing their physical withdrawal symptoms through medically monitored detox as well as their psychological repercussions of drug use through therapy. Those battling addiction in need of recovery resources can get the help they need at our Lake Worth center.


Link Between Drug Addiction and Mental Illness

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the definitive resource for diagnosing criteria for all mental disorders, also includes criteria for diagnosing drug use disorders. The DSM includes two types of drug use disorders: drug abuse and drug dependence. Drug dependence is similar to addiction in that it refers to a physical and psychological urge to use drugs or alcohol. A drug abuse diagnosis is dependent on the harmful consequences of repeated use but doesn’t include compulsive use, tolerance, or withdrawal, all of which can be signs of addiction. So, in other words, the definitive resource for diagnosing mental illnesses also includes criteria for diagnosing drug use disorders, meaning addictions are a mental illness.


Furthermore, many people who use drugs or alcohol also suffer from mental disorders. Co-occurring disorder and comorbidity are terms commonly used to describe two or more disorders or illnesses occurring in the same person. These conditions can occur at the same time or one after the other. Comorbidity also includes interactions between these illnesses that can worsen one or both. Many people who engage in substance abuse also develop other mental disorders, and people who suffer from mental disorders often engage in substance abuse. One study found that 36% to 40% of young adults with a serious mental illness or young adults seeking treatment also met the criteria for substance use disorders.1 Another study found that more than 60% of adolescents in their treatment studies had comorbid substance use and non-SUD.2


As a result of the chemical imbalance that long-term drug and alcohol abuse can cause, the individual may develop depression or anxiety. On the other hand, people with disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression may turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism for their symptoms. For instance, a person who struggles with major depression may enjoy momentary pleasure and happiness they experience from cocaine, meth, or prescription stimulants. However, a drug high is merely temporary and becomes even more so as drug use persists.


Oftentimes, the question “are addictions a mental illness” is sparked by a recent event. As a rehab center, we know that addiction and mental illness do not discriminate and can occur in anyone. This fact has become more evident in the prevalence of substance abuse and mental illness among celebrities. Since the start of Hollywood, there have been heartbreaking stories of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Robin Williams who have struggled with addiction and mental health issues.


If you or someone you know is battling addiction or a mental health disorder, we can help. BHOPB offers dual diagnosis treatment for people with co-occurring disorders, as well as substance-specific addiction treatment in Palm Beach. If you’d like to learn more about our mental health programs or other levels of care, call our drug rehab in Palm Beach today at 561-220-3981.


Related Reading:

The Myth of Drugs and Creativity: Mental Illness’ Role in the Using Artist

Cole Sprouse Talks About Mental Health After Social Media Break



  1. NIH – Prevalence and impact of substance use among emerging adults with serious mental health conditions
  2. NIH – Drug treatment outcomes for adolescents with comorbid mental and substance use disorders

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