With Mental Health Awareness Week (13th – 19th May) now approaching we take a look at the proven link between mental health and addiction.
“It was only when I got to my 20s and started having therapy I realised I had been using drugs and alcohol to self medicate,” says Billie Dee Gianfrancesco. “It was the only way I knew to control my moods and how I was feeling.”
Billie, 29, of London, is in no doubt of the link between mental health and addiction. She didn’t even realise she had a problem with drugs and alcohol until she contacted a mental health crisis line.
For others, the addiction appears to be the problem but once they scratch the surface they begin to realise issues with depression, anxiety or some other mental health issue have been a crucial contributor to their drinking or drug use.
For Billie, who is the daughter of chat show host Trisha Goddard, her conversations with mental health workers made her recognise that she’d become reliant on drugs and alcohol. Despite having what she describes as a privileged upbringing, being successful at school and university and going on to be a high achiever in PR, she’d drank a bottle of wine a night for ten years and more at weekends. She smoked weed every day and had cocaine and MDMA binges.
Ultimately, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder and received help and support with it and her drug and alcohol use.
Both are mental health conditions where self destructive behaviours, including drug and alcohol abuse, is a common symptom.
Thanks, perhaps, to the high profile now being achieved by efforts such as Mental Health Awareness Week, Billie believes understanding and empathy for those with mental health issues is growing. She is not so sure understanding for addicts is keeping pace.
She said: “Without my mental health diagnosis I don’t know if I would be telling people about my addiction. I don’t think I would be able to be as open.
“There is an awful stigma that people are choosing to be addicts, but how many people do you know that are alcoholics or taking drugs every day that are happy? It’s something people do when they have got nowhere to turn.”
Port of Call’s recent ‘Attitudes to Addiction’ survey certainly seemed to indicate stigma issues remain.
It showed almost a third of people believed they would not be willing to date someone who had completed drugs rehab (29%) and more than a quarter (27.5%) saying they would not be willing to date someone who had completed alcohol rehab.
The survey showed young people were more likely to be open to dating a recovering alcoholic or drug user – indicating, perhaps, that things are changing.
‘Addiction and mental health struggles go hand-in-hand’
Alex Molyneux, Port of Call senior call handler who battled addiction himself, said: “Addiction and mental health struggles go hand-in-hand and we see that over-and-over again.
“Drugs and alcohol are often an escape, a defence and a tool used by people suffering with trauma, social and generalised anxiety, depression and so much more.
“Initially, substances often appear to be the solution and then, so often, they become the problem. They feed and further exaggerate the very thing you were trying, consciously or unconsciously, to get away from.
“The depression becomes worse due to hangovers, remorse and guilt; the anxiety becomes heightened due to your sense that you can’t cope without drugs or alcohol and so on.
“It would be a surprise to me to find someone in rehab or recovery who didn’t have some level of mental health issue entangled with their addiction.
“There continues to be stigma around mental health issues and there continues to be stigma around addiction and the more we all talk about both and our experiences, the better.”
Mental Health Awareness Week highlights link to alcohol addiction
The Mental Health Foundation, the organisation behind Mental Health Awareness Week, created the report ‘Cheers? Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health’.
It said: “Many people in the UK drink alcohol in order to help them cope with emotions or situations that they would otherwise find difficult to manage.
“At the simplest level, we often drink because we wish to alter our mood – or change our mental state.
“This may involve the desire to quell feelings of anxiety or depression, or other low-lying mental health or mood problems, for want of a better way of dealing with them.
“There is much research that indicates that people who consume high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to higher levels of mental ill health.”
It added: “Alcohol is tied up with many areas of our lives, and we use it in a plethora of ways: to help us relax, feel brave, introduce ourselves, seal business deals, celebrate life events, drown our sorrows, remember, forget, welcome people, say goodbye to people, get to know people, manipulate people, because we feel like it, because we need it, to numb ourselves, to feel grown up, to feel young, to belong, to distinguish ourselves, and sometimes, because
we’ve forgotten how to do anything without alcohol.”
In the report, chief executive of the organisation, Dr Andrew McCulloch said: “The reasons we drink and the consequences of excessive drinking are intimately linked with our mental health, and this holds the key to dealing with growing worries about alcohol misuse.”
Adults indicating probable alcohol dependence, were much more likely to have used health services for a mental or emotional problem, according to NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. It said 37% reported speaking to a GP about a mental or emotional problem in the last year, including 19% who had spoken to a GP in the last two weeks.
Mental health issues are equally tied up in drugs misuse. There’s good reason the World Health Organisation has a ‘Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse’.
In 2017/18, there were 7,258 hospital admissions in England for drug related mental and behavioural disorders, according to NHS Digital.
We can only hope the continued work to raise understanding and empathy around mental health will spread out to encompass addiction and service providers will increasingly find ways to work closer together.
For further support and information around addiction and rehab see our information and guides.
Ten practical ways to help your mental health from the Mental Health Foundation:
- Talk about your feelings
- Take regular exercise
- Have a healthy diet
- Keep alcohol consumption in moderation
- Stay in contact with people you care about and who care about you
- Don’t be afraid to admit it when you need help
- Take breaks – both short breaks from what you’re doing and longer breaks and changes of scenery where possible
- Spend time on a hobby, something you love or are really good at
- Accept and embrace who you are
- Do something for someone else – helping someone else can make us feel better about ourselves and help us to feel needed and valuable.