Why Substance Abuse Worsens Your Mental Health

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Why Substance Abuse Worsens Your Mental Health

Trevor McDonald

Black and white image of a man with his hand on his shoulder looking down.

Have you ever heard of anyone taking “mind-expanding” drugs? People often use this term when they talk about hallucinogens like LSD or PCP. What they’re really doing is lying to themselves. Drugs don’t expand your mind nor do they improve your mind in any way. They are extremely damaging to the brain and its normal functioning.

Others may tell you that they need pot or alcohol to function in social situations. These people are self-medicating. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is extremely counter-productive because it will eventually worsen the very problem you’re trying to treat.

Regardless of which substance you abuse, substance abuse will worsen your mental health.

I know this from experience. I myself struggled with an addiction to painkillers, alcoholism, and depression. Fortunately, there is hope. After getting the proper dual diagnosis treatment, I’ve never been happier and healthier in my life.

The phenomenon of dual diagnosis

Many people who are diagnosed with an addiction also have a mental illness. Addiction and mental illness seem to go together about as often as peanut butter and jelly. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study suggests that 24.6 million people are living with a substance abuse disorder and 5 million of them also have a mental health disorder.

Drugs and depression

Most drug use leads to a surge of dopamine, which seems to counter the effects of depression. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it sends chemical messages within the brain and body. This neurotransmitter has many jobs, but its best-known is to communicate feelings of pleasure to the reward center of the brain. When you hug your best friend, you may experience a small dopamine surge. When you do a drug, the dopamine surge is 2-10x greater than any natural surge you’d experience.

Drugs provide such a dopamine surge that the brain can’t quite handle it, so the brain reduces dopamine and/or eliminates dopamine receptors. So the next time you get high, you’ll need more of the substance to get the same effect. This continues until you don’t even feel a high anymore.

And since your brain adjusted to the new levels of dopamine, it no longer responds to things that used to make you happy. It’s like the volume is stuck on full blast and you’ve blown out the speakers. Depression and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, most of the drug’s effects can be reversed when you stop using, but it takes time.

“I know this from experience. I myself struggled with an addiction to painkillers, alcoholism, and depression. Fortunately, there is hope. After getting the proper dual diagnosis treatment, I’ve never been happier and healthier in my life.”

Substance use and anxiety

Although some people cite social anxiety as their reason for doing drugs, drugs can actually be the cause of anxiety. It’s common for people to have anxiety attacks while taking “uppers” like cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy.

Drugs and schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental illness characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. Those “mind-expanding” psychoactive drugs can worsen these symptoms. Studies have also shown that cannabis can trigger schizophrenic episodes. One study found that a specific gene may be responsible for increasing psychosis risk among adults who used marijuana as teenagers.

When you’re feeling depressed or anxious and you don’t know why, substance abuse can be tempting. However, it is not a solution. When you use addictive substances regularly, you will eventually become addicted. Addiction often leads to depression, and it may worsen any other mental health issues you have. If you’re struggling to feel better, drugs aren’t the answer. Find a reputable counselor to discuss your problem and next steps.


-Trevor McDonald

Trevor McDonald is a freelance writer and recovering addict and alcoholic who’s been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.

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