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Mental Health Awareness Month - Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Written by Nicole Colwell | Edited By Gerard Bullen

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We know that staying aware of the body’s needs is important. With a physical injury, it’s wise to address any problem before it gets worse. Germs can enter unattended cuts and may lead to infection. People with serious wounds should seek medical help to avoid worsening problems.

Equally important is the effort it takes to keep your mind stable in the face of stress or trauma. But not everyone knows this fact. That’s why awareness is key in understanding how we can better take care of our mental health. And that is why in May of 2022 we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month.

How a Pandemic Started a Conversation About Mental Illness

If we call it a no-brainer to seek professional help for physical ailments, we should do the same for mental illnesses. To tell the truth, though, mental health hasn’t always seemed to get the same consideration.

Our minds experience trauma regularly and then must deal with the resulting wounds. Yet the widespread attitude for years has been to act as though nothing is wrong. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ is a common (and misguided) mindset that too many people experience.

The past two years have shown the importance of keeping your mental health strong. A worldwide pandemic affected everyone, with far-reaching COVID-19 repercussions. 

Psychological wounds are exposed because of the stress of quarantine and physical illness. We can now see the link between mental illness and the emotions brought out by difficulties. People realize that something isn’t quite right.

The good news? Honest conversations are happening about society’s need for emotional stability.

Before 2020 it was often taboo to talk about struggles with mental health. Now, the world’s understanding of powerful positive mental health is growing.

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What Does It All Mean?

Sometimes the easiest way to learn about a subject is to get back to basics. To understand mental health, knowing common phrases is essential. 

  • Mental Illness: A broad term that refers to an official diagnosis. This could include PTSD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. Causes can include genetics, trauma, or family history. Mental illnesses can distort the way a person thinks and feels. A professional can help you have excellent mental health.
  • Mental Health: The general state of a person’s mind and a way to relay the condition of a person’s thoughts and feelings. Therapy, medicine, and lifestyle changes are all ways to improve your mental health. 
  • Addiction: This is the uncontrollable urge to consume a drug or intoxicating substance. Every person ever born can face a possible substance addiction in their lifetime. This possibility includes every person worldwide, of every socioeconomic standing, gender, or age. 
  • Dual Diagnosis: A person diagnosed with mental illness and substance addiction. The challenge, in this case, can be in determining which of the diagnoses is worsening the other. Figuring this out gives a clearer path for what form of treatment to offer a patient.
  • Co-occurring Diagnosis: This alternate label for ‘dual diagnosis’ has the same meaning.

Signs of Mental Illness in Adults and Children

Recognizing distress signs is a critical step toward healthy mental living. This is true whether determining your mental status or that of an adult or child you know. It’s crucial to realize the many possible signs and symptoms to watch for. 

Here are some indicators that there may be a need for help among adults. Then, there is a list of further signs to watch for in children:

  • Unusual worry or fear
  • Excessive feelings of sadness or being low
  • Confusion, muddled thinking, or problems with learning or concentrating
  • Mood swings, with extreme lows or euphoric highs that feel uncontrollable
  • Irritability or anger that doesn’t seem to stop 
  • Avoiding familiar people and places, like friends and enjoyable social activities
  • Finding other people confusing or unrelatable
  • Sleep changes, including lack of energy and tired feeling
  • Either increased or decreased appetite and changes in food habits
  • High anxiety over gaining weight and/or obsession over appearance
  • Loss of interest in sex or engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Experiencing delusions, hallucinations, sensing something different than reality
  • Lack of self-awareness, insight, feelings, personality, and behavior
  • Substance abuse (this can be alcohol, drugs, or both)
  • ‘Mystery’ physical conditions with unknown origin (includes achiness, pain, head pain, or stomachaches)
  • Considering suicide as a solution to problems
  • Paralyzed by daily activities, cannot carry out simple tasks or handle stress

The unfortunate truth is that mental health awareness is a concern for people of all ages. Even in childhood, the struggle is real to keep a strong and healthy emotional state of being. 

Never discount that children of any age can also develop mental health conditions. During their formative years, kids are still learning. They don’t yet know how to recognize, talk about, or deal with their thoughts or emotions. Usually, symptoms among children will show up in behavioral ways, such as:

  • Unusual difficulties at school, including changes in their classroom performance
  • Extreme worry and anxiety that shows through fighting or avoiding bed or school
  • Being very hyperactive in their behavior
  • Experiencing ongoing nightmares
  • Frequent instances of not obeying or displaying aggression
  • Temper tantrums that seem out of character
Picture of a family gathered in a garden for Thanksgiving

Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month

Since 1949, one month of the year has focused on discussing mental illness. The goal is to educate society on the truth about mental health. Also, the hope is that increased awareness will remove stigmas born from misconceptions.

It’s an excellent time to talk about important topics that can lead to change. We can talk about how being mentally unhealthy has unique challenges to overcome. Or talk about how there are resources available for help. We can even talk about what it takes to create a healthier future for us all.

So, you can take the opportunity to flip the switch on the negative stigmas that exist. Highlight what’s incredible about humankind. Talk about mental illness. And celebrate the people who live with them.

Together, we can celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month by being mindful of what we do:

  1. Celebrate by taking care of yourself! First, our mental health needs gentle, consistent care. Make decisions that bring health to your life in mind, body, and soul. Take care of your physical body with nutritious eating and spending time outside. Connect with other people you encounter in your everyday life. Remind yourself that you are valuable and worth the effort to stay mentally healthy.
  2. Celebrate by caring for your loved ones! Each of us is ultimately responsible for our own choices and mental status. However, look around at the people you love and respect. It’s good to seek ways to encourage and motivate others to celebrate themselves. Watch for signs of problems with their mental health. Offer them available resources to help them live the best life they deserve. Most of all, allow them to be an imperfectly perfect human. Celebrate who they are. Cheer them on as they become the healthiest version of themselves that they can achieve.
  3. Celebrate by having an ongoing conversation about mental health! There is one impactful way we can celebrate Mental Health Awareness month. We can take any given opportunity to engage in discussions about mental health. Talk about what you know. Listen to what others are saying. Offer a safe space where people can feel comfortable joining in the conversation. Let’s work together to conquer worry and anxiety. We can work to keep society from drowning in isolation and fear. But we have first to be willing to talk about mental health.

The Connection Between Addiction and Mental Health

As we discuss Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s acknowledge something important. When we look between addiction and mental illnesses, we can see the connection. Only then can we address the genuine challenges that arise from substance abuse.

Gripping addictions and unfortunate overdoses stem from the misuse and abuse of drugs. It is a public health emergency needing attention. This should include professionals’ focus and participation from the general public.

The number of addicts living among us is staggering. For everyone’s future, we must find a solution to this problem.

Seeing the connection can help determine the best course of treatment. But what factors affect who experiences addiction? Is it genetics, sex, race, or socioeconomic background? The reality is, it’s much more than any one thing.

Some of the factors include:

  • Reaction to Drugs: Sometimes, a drug amplifies a pre-existing mental illness. This can happen if a substance causes a reaction in an addict. For instance, a person who experiences depression can have unexpected side effects. It can agitate the symptoms and make their mental health harder to manage. Deepening depression is a reaction you don’t want to happen.
  • Self-medicating: Mental illnesses can be hard to deal with. For some people, using substances to self-medicate feels like the only solution. Instead of accepting their diagnosis, they live in denial over their situation. Or in other cases, there is a desire to avoid the harsh reality of mental illness altogether. These are two reasons that people use substances to self-medicate against pain.
  • Underlying Causes: The brain is an intricate organ designed for success. Yet, a professional needs to investigate the cause if something goes wrong. There may be changes in the brain composition. This is what we see with brain shrinkage in dementia patients. Or there could be something off in a person’s genetic makeup. Genes with weaknesses can bring about obstacles rather than add strength. Another underlying cause some people experience indicates exposure to trauma. Examine the formative years in people with addictions to gauge their stress. One reason for mental health problems later in life is if their history is too traumatic. They could even have been exposed in the formative years to stressful and/or traumatic experiences in the formative years. These are some of the potential causes that could lead a person to choose the use of substances.   

Dual Diagnosis is Not a Hopeless Situation

Thousands of people find themselves a part of the drug crisis in the United States. Among those people, many also experience mental health challenges. 

Dual diagnosis refers to the presence of substance abuse addiction and mental illness. These co-occurring disorders may present symptoms together or occur one after another.

You may feel overwhelmed by receiving a dual diagnosis. Having both an addiction to drugs or alcohol and a mental illness can be a lot to process. 

If you or someone you know has received a dual diagnosis, know that you are not alone. There are resources available to help you overcome. There is hope for a healthier future.

Photo of a family with their dog

Know Some Important Mental Health Resources

You can make a world of difference for someone with mental health struggles. Know what direction to turn to get someone the help they need.

There are many steps you can take in determining what you can do:

  • Talk with a professional or a friend
  • Contact your insurance company for a list of therapist options
  • Call someone at NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Health at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • For immediate crisis help, call 911. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

For online information on mental health, try these resources: 

When seeking help for someone dealing with addiction, there are opportunities such as:

  • Check with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services SAMHS. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has 24/7 availability. Their focus is on addiction treatment and referral resources. For more details, call 1-800-663-HELP (4357). Or go online at https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.

Moving Forward Toward Healthy Living

Dealing with a mental illness is (much like an open cut on the skin) nothing to ignore. When that includes addiction, it can be nothing short of a nightmare. 

Preparing for the future should include a strategy for healthy living in the body and mind. Stay in the conversation about what mental illness looks like. Seek out what resources are available. Know how you or someone you love can overcome what once seemed like an impossible situation.

Celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month the healthiest way you can. Reach out if you need help overcoming an addiction or a co-occurring disorder. Take a step of victory today that will carry your celebration into a solid and healthy future.

Sources

NAMI.org. Get Involved: Mental Health Awareness Month. 2022. Available at: nami.org

CDC.gov. Taking Care of Your Mental Health: Impact of the Pandemic. April 2022. Available at cdc.gov.

MentalHealth.gov. Basics: What is Mental Health? 2022. Available at: mentalhealth.gov

NAMI.org. About Mental Illness: Warning Signs and Symptoms. 2022. Available at: nami.org.

CDC.gov. Children’s Mental Health. March 4, 2022. Available at: cdc.gov.

NationalToday.com. Mental Health Awareness Month. 2022. Available at: nationaltoday.com

HHS.gov. Fact Sheet: Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month. May 3, 2022. Available at: hhs.gov.

SAMHSA.gov. SAMHSA’s National Hotline. 2022. Available at: samshsa.gov.

EINNews.com. Mental Health Awareness Month Highlights Behavioral Health Dual Diagnosis Substance

Abuse Risks Direct Links. May 5, 2022. Available at: einnews.com.


Author: Nicole Colwell

Nicole Colwell began writing professionally in March 2012. She graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1999 with a BA in Psychology with a focus on Marriage and Family Relationships. After graduation, she returned to her hometown of Elmira, New York and began working at the local Behavioral Science Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital. That position allowed her to gain first-hand experience with mental health patients and those who were in need of drug and alcohol treatment. For the last few years, Nicole has been writing for SpringBoard Recovery. She has won several awards for her writing and editing skills, including the Golden Quill Award, which she has won the last eight years in a row for her work with the International Thunderbird Club. Nicole is a member of the American Medical Writer's Association, https://www.amwa.org/.

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