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The Connection Between Drug Abuse & Mental Health

  • timeline Deepanwita Roy, Clinical Psychologist
  • 4 Min Read

Drug abuse has been a topic of interest to many professionals in the area of health, particularly mental health. Drug use includes the use of illicit substances such as alcohol, tobacco, diversion of prescription drugs, as well as illicit substances. 

In India, alcohol is the most common substance used (14.6% of the entire population between the ages 15 to 75 years) followed by cannabis and opioids (2.8% of the entire population) and other substances. 

The link between drug use and mental health

Prolonged use and misuse of drug use changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbs a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires, and substituting new priorities connected with procuring and using the drug. The resulting behaviour overrides the ability to control impulses despite the consequences which are very similar to hallmarks of many mental health conditions.  Many people who regularly abuse drugs are also diagnosed with mental disorders and vice versa. 

When drug abuse and mental health disorders co-exist together, it gets in the way of the person’s ability to function normally, leading to disturbed sleep and appetite, social withdrawal, inability to handle difficulties in life and relating to others. 

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Symptoms of drug use & associated mental health conditions

Drug use affects people from all walks of life and all socioeconomic statuses. Whatever the reason might be a person starts taking drugs, whether recreationally or as prescribed, tolerance, patterns of increased use, physical dependence, and ultimately, addiction may develop– sometimes before the person even realizes it. Some of the physical and behavioural signs of prolonged drug use are of as follows:

Physical symptoms:

Some of the most noticeable symptoms of drug use are those that affect certain physiological processes. For example, the person’s body’s tolerance to a drug develops when a drug is used long or often enough that it adapts to the consistently elevated presence of the substance. When tolerance grows, increased quantities or strengths are required to achieve the previous effects. 

  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Abrupt weight changes
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Dental and skin issues
  • Disturbed sleep and appetite

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Behavioural symptoms: 

Drug use tends to significantly alter a person’s behaviour and habits. Some drugs can even impair the brain’s ability to focus and think clearly.

  • Significant changes in mood, sometimes, feeling low, irritable, ecstatic, or even increased aggression
  • Changes in attitude/personality
  • Lethargy
  • Sudden changes in a social network
  • Dramatic changes in habits and/or priorities

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Signs usually vary based on the substance and the method used (that is, smoking, injection, etc.). Also, learning to recognize the physical or behavioural signs of drug use can help prevent the problem from progressing further. The mental health conditions that most commonly co-occur with drug abuse are depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders.  

Treatments available for drug abuse and mental health

Overcoming drug abuse is a difficult process and requires a lot of patience, persistence, and time. There are several treatment options available for drug abuse.

  • Medications play an important role to help reduce cravings and manage withdrawal from drugs. Alongside this, it also helps in managing co-occurring mental or medical health conditions. 
  • Individual and/or group therapy. Behavioural approaches in the forms of psychotherapy, counselling, and rehabilitation by trained mental health professionals help people engage in drug abuse treatment, modify their attitudes and behaviours related to drug abuse, and increase their life skills to handle stressful circumstances and environmental cues that may trigger intense craving for drugs and prompt another cycle of compulsive abuse. Below are a number of behavioural therapies shown to be effective in addressing drug abuse:
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) helps people overcome drug addiction by helping them to dismiss false beliefs and insecurities that lead to substance abuse; providing self-help tools to better their moods and teaching effective communication skills. 
  • Contingency Management Therapy gives positive incentives or encourages the principles of reinforcement. 
  • Motivational Interviewing is a technique wherein therapists try to motivate people and help them maintain abstinence from drugs. One benefit of MI is that, despite being facilitated by a therapist, those in recovery develop their own motivation and a plan for change over the course of several sessions, which can provide them with more of a sense of control over the course of their treatment.
  • Maintenance therapy helps people stay away from drug abuse over a period of time because chances of relapses and getting back to abuses are often seen to be high. 

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In addition to getting professional treatment, there are plenty of self-help steps you can take to address your substance abuse and mental health issues.

Recognize and manage overwhelming stress and emotions: Learn different strategies to manage your stress, cope with your unpleasant feeling by incorporating healthier coping strategies, knowing your triggers early on, and taking appropriate action plans. 

Stay connected with others: Make face to face or virtual connections with your friends and family members, seek professional help, and following the doctor’s advice, and by maintaining a routine that keeps you occupied.

Make healthy lifestyle choices: Exercise regularly focuses on mindfulness meditation, yoga, and other forms of exercise to stay calm, adopt healthier eating habits, and get adequate sleep. Develop hobbies and interests and also avoid the things that trigger your urge to indulge in drug use. 

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The best way to help someone is to accept what you can and cannot do. If you are or if you know someone undergoing concerns related to drug use and mental health, encourage them to get help and start their journey towards a faster recovery. Now, during the lockdown, you can even consult psychiatrists or psychotherapists online at MFine. Ab #HarGharMeinDoctor 


  • timeline
  • Written by

    Deepanwita Roy, Clinical Psychologist

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