Nearly every conversation about challenges in our community comes around to mental health, or more accurately, the lack of mental health.
Law enforcement officers share concerns about the number of times they deal with people experiencing mental illness. School staff and people working in after-school activities see children and teens struggling with mental illness. Healthcare providers also bring up mental illness as a concern in their work. And, in the work of preventing youth alcohol and other drug use, mental illness is a challenge. In a recent meeting with state senators and representatives, the Coalition once again heard and raised the issue of mental illness.
You might wonder why the Chemical Health Coalition cares about mental illness. Our work is focused on preventing alcohol and other drug use. Yes, but, mental health and chemical health are very closely linked but in a complicated way. Alcohol or other drug addiction does not cause mental illness. Likewise, mental illness does not cause someone to develop an addiction to alcohol or other drugs.
But there is a big overlap of mental illness and alcohol/drug addiction. Three examples can show the complications: 1) When a person abuses a drug, they can experience one or more symptoms of another mental illness. (Alcohol/drug abuse is considered a brain illness, too). For example, some marijuana users have increased risk of psychosis. 2) People with mild mental illness may abuse drugs to medicate their mental illness. For example, some people with schizophrenia get symptom relief from tobacco use. 3) Both mental illness and drug abuse can be caused by overlapping reasons. Issues like brain deficits, early trauma experiences or genetic problems can contribute to both addiction and mental illness.
Looking at one illness by itself is a poor solution. It reduces success in prevention, treatment and recovery. For example, mood disorders happen twice as often among people with any drug use disorder. The same is true with anxiety disorders. Mood disorders, like depression and anxiety, are pretty common among youth. Development in adolescence is an especially vulnerable time. Both mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse often appear at this age.
How does that shape our prevention work? First, it means recognizing and breaking down the stigma around mental illness and substance abuse. It means being open and honest about these important health issues. Second, it means getting to know the youth you have connections to and learning how you can support them through your relationships. Third, building assets and protective factors in our youth are excellent prevention strategies.
Helping young people to build decision-making skills, strong relationships, healthy behaviors and more can give them the ability to meet life’s challenges. Fourth, if you have concerns about a young person’s mental or chemical health, help them get help. Don’t think it someone else will do it. You might be the one person who will.
Stay informed. Stay involved. Fight stigma. Your caring action can make a difference.