Connection Between Bipolar And Substance Abuse

Often the symptoms of a mental illness are too much for one person to handle on his or her own. When things feel hopeless, uncertain, or simply uncomfortable, a person with symptoms that feel unmanageable may turn to various forms of self-medication to feel better, to escape from reality, and to numb out for a while.

Bipolar Disorder

The prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse is more common than most people think. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other illnesses that affect mood and that interfere with daily functioning lead countless people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Bipolar Disorder

This mental illness is characterized by mood swings from episodes of major depression to episodes of mania, or hypomania.

Major depression involves long periods of:

  • feeling sad, hopeless, and full of despair

  • feeling tired, fatigued, and without energy

  • experiencing noticeable changes in sleeping patterns, eating habits, and daily routine

  • feeling disinterested in previously enjoyable activities

  • having difficulty concentrating, remembering tasks, recalling information, and making decisions

  • feeling restless and easily irritable

  • thinking about death, and possibly attempting suicide.

Episode of mania or hypomania include:

  • feeling overly happy

  • being extremely outgoing

  • being extremely irritable

  • feeling “high” without the use of drugs or alcohol

  • having increased energy for activities and events

  • rapid speech

  • rapidly jumping from one topic of conversation to another

  • being easily distracted, and distractible

  • living with a skewed understanding of personal abilities

  • engaging in dangerous behaviors (often physical or sexual in nature)

  • taking on several new projects

  • experiencing a decreased need for sleep

  • impulsively engaging in high-risk behaviors in an insatiable search for pleasure.

When a major depressive episode shifts, the individual can then swing right to a manic episode, with very little warning. During times of either episode, substances are appealing as a way to change an unwanted mood or group of sensations. When symptoms reach an unbearable point, people with bipolar disorder will reportedly do anything to feel better, or at least different from how they currently feel.

Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse

The two disorders are now occurring so often together that every person presenting with the symptoms of bipolar disorder are also assessed for substance abuse.

Drugs that are considered “downers” are used during manic episodes, in an effort to bring a person’s mood back “down” to neutral. Alcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers, and anti-anxiety medications are abused, which may reduce the symptoms of the manic phase, but will then generally take the user all the way down to an episode of major depression.

Drugs that are considered “uppers” are then used to counteract the depressive symptoms. Cocaine, crystal meth, amphetamines, and several prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, will make their users feel “up”, but after the high wears off, the return to depression is drastic and unnerving.

Psychedelic drugs are also appealing to people with bipolar disorder. LSD, Ecstasy, Molly, PCP, and mushrooms are abused, but present an even further possibility for psychotic episodes that people with bipolar disorder can be more prone to than those without a mental illness.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse

The process of using “downers” and then abusing “uppers” can easily turn into an unbreakable cycle leading to dangerous behaviors, poor decision making, and never feeling good. This cycle needs to be broken. Intervention focused on getting someone into appropriate dual diagnosis treatment is vitally important.

Dual diagnosis, meaning two clinical diagnoses at the same time, attempts to treat the symptoms of both illnesses concurrently. With an individualized treatment plan, someone suffering from both disorders can start to heal.

The first step is abstinence from all substances through medically-monitored detoxification. From there, symptoms can be appropriately assessed and diagnosed, and a new life can begin.

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