Prescription Medication and Substance Abuse

Prescription Medication and Substance Abuse

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Prescription Medication and Substance Abuse

If you’re taking prescription medications for a mental health disorder along with using recreational drugs or alcohol, the interaction could lead to dangerous health consequences. Read ahead to learn why mental illness often coexists with drug addiction, and about the risks attached to prescription medication and substance abuse.

Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Often Occur Together

When a person is diagnosed with two or more disorders, that phenomenon is defined as comorbidity. Comorbidity of mental illness and substance abuse disorder is fairly common, and many studies have found that close to 50 percent of those who suffer from a mental health disorder will also experience problems with substance abuse.[7] The reverse is also true: a substance abuse problem may lead to a future diagnosis of a mental health disorder.[7]

Comorbidity is also known as co-occurring disorders and dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis indicates only that the two disorders exist. It doesn’t mean they necessarily happen at the same time or that one disorder causes the other. While we can’t unravel the mystery of causation, we do know which factors can contribute to the comorbidity of mental illness and a substance use disorder.

Risk Factors That Can Contribute to Both Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

Genetic Factors

Several studies have found a link between substance abuse and genetics. For example, if a family member is addicted to alcohol, there’s a 40-60 percent chance someone who shares his genes will inherit the disease[1], and genetics may determine is someone is predisposed to be a heavy user of marijuana and other illicit drugs[2]. But research also indicates that there are genes that could contribute to both addiction and mental disorders[3].

Brain Chemistry

Substance abuse and mental illness are both capable of affecting or disrupting many areas of the brain – particularly those involved with reward systems, impulse control, and decision-making[4]. Additionally, both mental illness and illicit drug use can affect the neurotransmitters responsible for the release of dopamine, GABA, glutamate, norepinephrine, and serotonin[5].

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors like stress and childhood trauma can play a role in both the onset of mental illness and the likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. A 2010 study[6] found that there was a greater risk of developing a substance abuse problem among bipolar patients who reported being physically abused during childhood. A separate study found children who experienced trauma were more likely to be later diagnosed with PTSD as well as have a greater dependence on drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine[7].

Mental Disorders and their Contribution to Substance Abuse

In addition to the above risk factors for developing mental illness and substance abuse comorbidity, researchers have found that mental illness itself can be a contributing factor to drug addiction. If individuals who suffer from mental illness use street drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, they may be able to temporarily relieve their symptoms.

But brain anomalies due to the specific mental disorder may make it more likely to become addicted to the illicit drugs taken for temporary relief[7]. In other words, brain activity may make it more likely for the individual to experience enhanced results when taking street drugs or alcohol and to ignore any of the negative effects.

Substance Abuse Can Contribute to the Development of Mental Disorders

Neurotransmitters that are disrupted in patients with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder can also be affected by substance abuse. Additionally, it’s possible for drug use to trigger – via changes in brain structure – an underlying predisposition to a specific mental illness[5].

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Prescription Medication and Substance Abuse

Interactions Between Street Drugs and Prescribed Psychotropic Drugs

If you’re currently taking prescription medication for a mental health disorder, be aware that also using street drugs or alcohol could affect the potency of your prescribed medicines – and might even increase the risk of harmful consequences:

Prescribed Drug

Interaction With Recreational Drugs or Alcohol

  • Greater risk of sedation with marijuana, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and alcohol
  • Rapid heartbeat with marijuana; arrhythmia when using heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, or alcohol with tricyclics
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure if taking MAOIs with cocaine, ecstasy, or amphetamines
  • Increased risk of sedation when used with marijuana, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, or alcohol
  • Alcohol can also reduce respiratory rate
  • Greater risk of accidental overdose when used with heroin
First-Generation Antipsychotics
  • Taking with ecstasy can increase the risk of developing movement disorders
  • Greater risk of arrhythmias, tachycardia, and sedation when used with street drugs or alcohol
Second-Generation Antipsychotics
  • Increased risk of sedation with heroin or alcohol
  • Increased risk of arrhythmias when used with cocaine, ecstasy, or amphetamines
  • When taken with marijuana, it can reduce the amount of the prescription medication in your body
  • Substances that can cause dehydration – like alcohol and ecstasy – can precipitate lithium toxicity
Anticonvulsants for Bipolar Disorder
  • The use of alcohol while on anticonvulsants can increase the risk of liver damage

Source: [8]

Prescription Medication and Substance Abuse: Where to Seek Treatment

The Dual Diagnosis program at Ocean Hills Recovery can provide help for those who struggle with both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse problem. Treatment for addiction alone can likely be unsuccessful if underlying mental illness isn’t addressed. 

The approach to dual diagnosis at Ocean Hills Recovery is different from more traditional methods for treating addiction. Our “Collaborative Recovery” process involves therapists, physicians, family members, and the community to better understand an individual’s disorders and addictions.  By combining medical, psychological, social, and spiritual interventions, we’re working to provide the greatest possibility of enduring recovery.

Find Out More About Dual Diagnosis Treatment

If you’re ready for a better approach to addiction treatment, contact Ocean Hills Recovery For more information about our Dual Diagnosis program. Long-term recovery is in your future!












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