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The Relationship between Addiction and Mental Health
Robert Downey Jr. has contributed more than just Iron Man as an inspirational message, he’s also passed on this quote about addiction:
“Getting sober was one of the three pivotal events in my life, along with becoming an actor and having a child. Of the three, finding my sobriety was the hardest thing.”
Merriam-Webster defines addiction as a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance.”
But how does addiction play into depression and other mental health disorders? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that more than one-third of people with an addiction also suffered from a mental health disorder. Co-occuring disorders – or mental health disorders combined with addiction – occur as a dynamic process. They can arise from genetic risk, environmental risk, and even pharmacologic risk. Both addiction and mental health occur with different severity levels, rates of progression, and symptom manifestation.
This means that these two disorders can be identified side-by-side and not just as a combination of symptoms. But what makes a person with addiction prone to mental health disorders and vice versa?
For me, as a person who stutters, I fell into this hole when in college. Early on, I was placed into an international dormitory as a white person from a rural community in southern Michigan. At the time, it shocked me. It was hard to find friends because I had little social confidence due to my stuttering and little cultural awareness. I just had a lot of energy. As the months drifted on, the energy I used to have slowly evaporated. My days were spent with my eyelids seemingly drooped over my eyeballs and an inability to produce suitable or passionate emotional responses. I thought I found life again the first night I tried alcohol and marijuana.
It happened one night at a party for a group I was in. I was in the backyard of a duplex and a senior offered little freshman me a can of beer and a hit of marijuana from a soft drink can. It was such a chilling experience. I sat down with another person I knew at the party. It was a little couch so our thighs were touching. For some reason, one of the few things I remember from that first night is the comfort and warmth that came from that person’s thigh. It wasn’t anything sexual, but it was one of the very good feelings I carried into the future.
Shortly after, I bought my first weed and fifth of vanilla vodka. I found myself smoking nearly every night. After I finished (or gave up on) my calculus or economics homework, I would pour myself a drink and roll myself a joint. My hometown was only an hour from my university, but I refused to go home on the weekends because it meant I couldn’t smoke or drink. At the time, I just thought I was a regular college kid.
It was a pattern that went through all four years, even though I knew I had to apply for jobs and go to interviews. After I graduated, I spent a good three-week period drinking heavily. I would wake up and start applying for jobs around 11 am. After every paragraph of a cover letter, I would take a drink of beer (or two, or three). By hour two of applying for jobs, I’d be trashed. I never went back to read those cover letters, even today. I’m too ashamed.
I still remember when I realized what a mess I was. I was never going to find a job writing cover letters on my seventh beer of the afternoon. I was never going to survive an interview without alcohol if I didn’t quit or severely limit it. What really did it for me was a motivational speech by Eric Thomas that I found. The speech discusses “going deep,” or focusing your life on one goal and never accepting no as an answer. It’s a simple, short, but very powerful speech to a class of teens.
I realized I could never find a good job and have a successful career if I spent most of my day drunk and high. I realized that video games and drugs shouldn’t control my life. I had to control my life and only use video games and drugs when I had absolutely nothing else I could do. I had to go deep into finding a job.
Substance Abuse and the Bigger Story
Is a person depressed if he or she comes home from work and drinks a few glasses of red wine each night? Do people need to start researching luxury rehab centers if they are smoking joints to fall asleep each night? Not always, but there are many cases where it’s necessary.
People use many drugs to self-medicate mental health disorders. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said that tobacco products can lessen the symptoms of schizophrenia and improve cognition. But there are also other examples. Perhaps a person with depression finds a spark in their life through an upper like Adderall or cocaine. Frequent abuse can lead to the compulsive need for an upper to make it through a workday.
But there is also the flip side, which the NIDA also provided. There is an increased risk of psychosis in some people who use marijuana. This is a case where drug use can lead to a mental health disorder.
Inspiration of Robert Downey Jr.
Even Downey Jr., one of the highest-paid actors of the 2000s, once found himself sitting in a jail cell. According to a Vanity Fair interview with Downey Jr. published in October 2014, Downey Jr. was inmate P50522 at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, California.
Definitely not a luxury rehab center, but a place for Downey Jr. to realize the faults he had made. From an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 film Chaplin, to nearly five years of fighting addiction in the public eye. He broke himself free from the shackles that chained him away from reality and sprung to heights his career had never seen before.
Downey Jr. has also suffered from depression and has even been diagnosed with bipolar disorder by one psychiatrist. His public battles with addiction and mental health probably lead to some very desperate struggles behind closed doors. But now he’s sitting on top tier of the acting world.
What Is There to Learn?
Addiction and mental health have been at the forefront of many political discussions. President Donald Trump has highlighted them as some of the main issues that the U.S. needs to fight. There have been increasing rules and regulations on doctors who can prescribe opioids.
Many people can’t defeat mental health problems on their own. This site and other resources have so much good advice to help. A lot of it comes down to realizing when problems can arise. Suffering from a mental health disorder can directly lead to an addiction and vice versa, but it doesn’t have to. With the help of resources on this site and the rest of the web, beating negative mental health is possible.
Josh D. writes about various topics, including recovery. In his free time, he enjoys jamming on the tuba and bass guitar, going for walks through Metro Detroit, and playing video games.