Detail of hands folded at teen therapy session

Mental Health and Substance Use

When a teen develops a substance abuse problem, the first question a parent might ask is: “Why?” For some teens, substance misuse often develops due to an underlying mental health issue. In a desperate attempt to find relief, these teens attempt to medicate their illnesses using the only tools they can find: drugs and alcohol.

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Co-occurring Disorders

Psychiatric disorders frequently co-occurring with substance use disorder (SUD) are posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, panic disorder, and various anxiety disorders. Having SUD and a concurrent mental health disorder is also known as dual diagnosis—a phenomenon well-known to addiction professionals.  

Underlying mental health issues include adverse childhood events (ACEs) such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, domestic violence, parental substance misuse, parental separation or divorce, and suicide or death in the immediate family. ACE are prevalent among people with substance addictions, and there is a clear correlation between people who experienced four or more ACEs and a diagnosis of SUD. 

America’s youth is also experiencing epidemic levels of anxiety and depression—mental health conditions correlated with substance misuse. From 2013 to 2019, 1 in 11 children aged 3–17 was affected by anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same research showed that 1 in 5 adolescents aged 12–17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode.

What Causes Co-occurring Disorders?

Co-occurring disorders may develop for many reasons. However, self-medicating the symptoms of undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions is a primary reason often cited by mental healthcare professionals. Young people who begin to experience the negative side-effects and symptoms of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, may not understand that their symptoms indicate an illness and may not ask for help. In other cases, treatment attempts to manage these conditions when they are identified prove unsuccessful. When adolescents and teens cannot find relief from the many negative implications of living with active mental illnesses, they may turn to substances including alcohol, illicit drugs, and misused prescription medications to find relief. 

In some cases, it can be relatively easy for teens to access and use substances without being detected by parents, guardians, or other authority figures who can intervene. Alcohol can often be easily obtained, as can a wide range of prescription medications that are stored unprotected in many American households. Oftentimes, young people get substances from friends or at parties, and others turn to dealers or even the dark web as sources. Regardless of how young people access substances, it is vital that use is detected and that treatment addresses the underlying issues that contribute to the development of mental health disorders.

Just as mental health conditions can trigger co-occurring substance use disorders, the converse is also possible. Adolescents who start misusing substances can develop mental health conditions as a result. Different substance use disorders pose unique mental health risks. Cannabis use disorder, for example, can lead to anxiety, depression, and psychosis, while dissociative drugs (hallucinogens) can cause mood disorders, panic and anxiety disorders, and reduced executive functioning. 

Aside from the direct effects of specific substances on the mind and body are the many negative consequences of misusing any substance. Developing problematic substance use disorders exposes adolescents and teens to risks including physical injury, poor sleep, reduced academic and extracurricular performance, poor diet, damaged friend and family relationships, legal and financial problems, etc. The adverse events caused by substance use disorders can cause severe stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Co-occurring Disorders Treatment

As a front-line adolescent mental healthcare provider, Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services are highly focused on addressing the link between mental health disorders and substance use, working to redefine the perception and treatment of dual-diagnosis disorders. Modern, evidence-based addiction treatment needs to address all underlying mental health conditions to be effective. 

Since Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services treats many teens with dual diagnoses, integrated care is crucial to success. Our cross-trained staff have training and credentials in both adolescent addiction treatment and adolescent mental health. Our integrated rehab programs provide care for substance use disorders and mental health issues in the same facility; there is no need to go back and forth between different clinics or treatment centers. Our customized treatment plans are tailored to the needs of the individual needs of our teenage patients. 

Finding the Right Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders in Adolescence

For the individuals and families suffering the effects of adolescent substance use and mental health disorders, there is little or no distinction between these related conditions. However, many people perceive mental health and substance use disorders as separate disorders, and each is differently stigmatized. Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services clients regularly present with mental health and substance use disorders, and the treatment of these conditions is similar. Helping parents and referring professionals understand the interrelation between these disorders can dispel old thinking and shift focus to the bigger adolescent health picture. Championing stigma reduction is a far-reaching cause, and Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services are working to challenge old ideas and stereotypes.