It is common for mental illness and drug use to go hand in hand.  While mental illness does not cause drug use, (nor drug use cause mental illness) it does put individuals at a higher risk for using.  Read on to learn more about the link between mental illnesses and drug use.  


The National Bureau of Economic Research published findings that linked mental illness and use of addictive substances.  They found that “mental illness does increase use of addictive goods — relative to use by the overall population — by 20 percent for alcohol, 27 percent for cocaine, and 86 percent for cigarettes.  A history of mental illness increases participation (relative to participation in the overall population) by 25 percent for alcohol, 69 percent for cocaine, and 94 percent for cigarettes.”  For reference, 24% of the population is affected with a mental illness in a given year, and 43% are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in time during their life.

Common Mental Illnesses

Common mental illnesses that increase the risk of drug use include: major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, etc.  


Many individuals who suffer from a mental illness may use drugs to self-medicate, meaning that they dull the senses or attempt to heighten their mood by using drugs.  Common symptoms that people try to self-medicate include depression, paranoia, anxiety, and restlessness.  Unfortunately, self-medication does not treat the underlying problem, it only temporarily masks it.  Self-medication can make problems worse, lead to addiction, or even overdose.  

Can Drug Use Trigger Mental Illness?

The opposite effect can sometimes occur, where frequent drug use leads to mental illnesses such as depression, eating disorders, paranoia, etc.  Depression is a common mental illness triggered by drug use, as users develop a tolerance for the drug, needing more of it to even feel “normal.”  Chronic drug use also increases the chance of becoming a victim of rape or assault, possibly leading to PTSD.  

Other Factors

There are many other factors that contribute to drug abuse, such as family history of drug use, age when first exposed to drugs (adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time), personality, peer pressure, and traumatic experiences.  

There Is Hope

Just because someone has a higher chance of drug abuse does not mean that they are predestined to become a drug addict, and if someone has begun using drugs it does not mean that they will be a slave to the substances forever.  If you or someone you love is struggling with drug abuse, don’t be afraid to reach out and find help.