Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

Posted on November 2, 2021

man in therapy discussing addiction and mental illness

Addiction, also called substance use disorder (SUD), is a complex condition that affects a person’s ability to function in day-to-day life. Substance abuse can alter an individual’s thinking and behavior, and, over time, may even change how their brain functions. So, is addiction a mental illness? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says yes, defining addiction as both “a complex brain disorder and a mental illness.”

Defining Addiction

People begin to use drugs for many reasons. They may be simply experimenting or caving to curiosity or peer pressure. They may be looking for drugs to help them improve their performance at work or school. Others may turn to drugs to feel better or to relieve stress.

No matter the reason someone begins using drugs, addiction is always possible. When individuals begin to take drugs compulsively or behave in dangerous ways because of their usage, they may be suffering from addiction, which can easily cause interpersonal conflict and physical, mental, and emotional complications.

Addiction is a chronic medical condition, just like diabetes or heart disease. And like both of those conditions, it is treatable.

Symptoms of Addiction

There are common symptoms of substance use disorder regardless of the addictive substance.

The first symptom is a strong craving for the drug of choice or the feelings of impaired control that come with substance use. Individuals struggling with addiction may try to reduce or eliminate the drug from their life, but they are not usually able to stop using on their own.

Another symptom is the development of interpersonal, professional, or social problems due to substance use. Individuals with substance use disorder may begin to have trouble completing tasks at their job, home, or school. They may also give up hobbies, neglect relationships, or act irrationally because of their drug usage.

A third symptom is engaging in dangerous or risky activities because of drug use. Addicted individuals may recognize the danger they are putting themselves in but be unable to stop taking their drug of choice.

Finally, addiction is symptomized by increased tolerance for the drug. Over time, the addicted person will need higher amounts of their substance of choice to achieve the same effects that they experienced in the beginning. If they try to stop or reduce their drug intake, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can vary depending on the individual, the drug they are taking, and other factors.

Treatment for Addiction

Because addiction is a chronic mental illness, treatment can reduce a person’s symptoms of addiction and help them get sober. There is no “cure” for addiction and individuals should remain vigilant of the risk of relapse, just as they would with other chronic illnesses.

The most successful treatment approach for addiction combines behavioral therapy, peer support, and medication management when appropriate. An individual’s care plan should reflect their unique substance use history, goals, needs, and life circumstances.

Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), helps the individual in recovery learn new ways of coping with stress and other addiction triggers. Therapy often takes place in both individual and group settings.

Medication may be appropriate for some individuals and their recovery needs. Certain medications can help lessen withdrawal symptoms and ease the pain of detox, while others can help individuals maintain their sobriety.

Finally, ongoing aftercare programs and regular attendance in a peer support group can provide safe and accepting places for those in recovery to manage issues or concerns as they arise.

Rising Phoenix, a licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona, offers a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are embraced, not judged, throughout their recovery process.

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