THE BLOG

Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

14/10/2015 12:13 BST | Updated 13/10/2016 10:12 BST

'Why should we care about addicts - surely they cause all their own problems? People with genuine mental health issues deserve my sympathy, but not selfish pleasure seekers with no discipline.'

Unfortunately, there are an unbelievable amount of people who still believe this sentiment. But perceptions are changing, slowly but surely. Last Saturday marked the return of World Mental Health Day - an annual global acknowledgment of mental health education, awareness and advocacy. With this in mind, I wanted to explore the close relationship between addictive behaviour and mental illness.

While addiction is considered a mental illness medically, the public opinion of addiction is typically far less sympathetic when compared with other mental health disorders. Society tends to be more charitable to someone who is bipolar or depressed, but is that because most people don't have a clear understanding of addiction?

Nobody asks to suffer from depression, paranoia, phobias, or any other debilitating mental illnesses. But no one asks to be an addict either. The effect on an individual's life can be just as severe, and indeed, life threatening.

Today, addiction is recognised as a chronic disease that changes the brain's structure and function. Just as an enjoyable meal causes the brain to register pleasure, drug and alcohol use has the same effect. Using drugs activates a surge in dopamine release, which ultimately triggers a satisfying sensation in the brain. The likelihood that the use of substances will lead to addiction depends on the speed and intensity of the dopamine release, as well as the individual's mental state. This essentially means that the brain has no more control over an addiction than it does with a condition like schizophrenia.

A staggering 85 per cent of our callers who are concerned about addiction have at least one other mental illness. What's more, Alcohol Concern's recent report revealed that 29 per cent of those classed as alcohol dependent have also been diagnosed with depression.

Individuals who suffer with mental illnesses, such as depression, may start to abuse substances to mask their symptoms and help them temporarily escape their situation. Self-medication may begin sporadically, but the feeling and relief that the drug creates could lead to both psychological and physiological dependency.

Although addiction is a mental illness in itself, substance abuse can ultimately make symptoms worse, and in some cases, it can trigger wider mental health problems. It's not uncommon to experience long-term paranoia, delusions or depression as a result of excessive drug taking.

Spotting the early signs of addiction is easier said than done, particularly because the most common symptom is self-denial. A significant number of sufferers are either unaware of their problem, or refuse to acknowledge that they have one at all. If you're concerned about a loved one's habit with substances, it's important to recognise when it's time to step in and seek help. Recreational drug or alcohol use shouldn't get in the way of everyday life, so be sure to keep an eye out for any unusual behaviour.

The UK's negative perception of addiction means that many addicts may not be receiving the help they need. In order for addiction treatment and recovery to be effective, society needs to alter its attitude and understand the reason behind its causes. With one in four Britons experiencing some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, it's important that we accept all forms of mental illnesses and encourage people to seek help. After all, you never know when you might require support for a mental health disorder yourself.