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Is Addiction a Form of Mental Illness?

Teenage girl holding her head in her hands.

Lots of people may wonder, “How do you categorize addiction?”

Is it a disease? A character flaw? A physical problem? A mental sickness? A brain dysfunction? A genetic disorder? Or a combination of some of these?

Addiction History and Substance Use Disorder

To be sure, confusion is common when trying to describe and classify addiction, and its definitions have certainly changed over the years. Physicians in centuries gone by thought it was a chemical imbalance that could be treated by bloodletting; and even a half-century ago, those struggling with addiction were put into an insulin coma because doctors thought causing fluctuations of insulin would alter the brain.

Today, addiction is classified as a brain disease by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists criteria that define the mental health condition called substance use disorder (SUD). Fortunately, medical professionals no longer view addiction as a deficit of willpower or a character defect.

A diagnosis of SUD is appropriate when a person experiences “functionally significant impairment” in his or her daily life due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs. The DSM-5 further stratifies SUD into mild, moderate, and severe categories.

Disorder vs. Illness

You may be asking, “So is SUD a mental disorder or a mental illness? Or is there any difference between the two terms?” Though they are often used interchangeably, a mental illness differs slightly from a mental disorder.

The APA defines a mental disorder as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbances in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.”

Meanwhile, the latest edition of a psychiatric mental health nursing manual describes a mental illness as “maladaptive responses to stressors from the internal or external environment, evidenced by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are incongruent with the local and cultural norms, and that interfere with the individual’s social, occupational, and/or physical functioning.”

There is certainly considerable overlap between the two terms. But generally speaking, mental disorders are rooted in the individual’s brain activity or behavioral dysfunction; whereas mental illness is viewed from the perspective of the responses to a person’s environment which interfere with his or her day-to-day functioning.

Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Illness

In addition, SUD and mental illnesses tend to have a symbiotic relationship with one another, especially in teens. In fact, a mental illness is discovered in more than three out of every five teen addiction cases in the U.S.

In these instances where both conditions are present in a single individual, substance abuse disorder and mental illness are called co-occurring disorders. This phenomenon is so common in adolescence because it is both a period in one’s life when experimentation (as with drugs or alcohol) is typical as well as when many types of mental illness tend to begin manifesting.

Moreover, both SUD and mental illness share a number of common risk factors. These include genetic and epigenetic influences, environmental influences, stress, trauma, and adverse childhood experiences. Unsurprisingly, an underlying mental illness can contribute to the severity of addiction and vice versa.

How to Combat SUD and Mental Illness

When teens are suffering from co-occurring disorders, the most effective strategy is to treat both (or all) of the specific conditions. This requires careful preparation by health care professionals who must formulate a treatment plan that is specific to the needs of each unique patient. Treatment options for teenagers often include individualized cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes in areas like nutrition and physical activity.

Because the human brain is so complex (and in the case of adolescents, continuously developing), it can be challenging to address all of the specific needs of an addicted teen especially one with co-occurring disorders. Though the road to recovery from SUD can be long, difficult, and even marked by relapses, many adolescents can and do achieve the ideal balance of treatment to control their conditions, maintain sobriety, and live a healthy and fulfilling adult life.

Do you suspect that your teen is suffering from substance use disorder? Then contact us to get help and learn more about our evidence-based teen treatment programs.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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