Mental and substance use disorders are common in the United States, affecting millions each year. In some cases, substance and alcohol abuse occur along with a mental illness. While these illnesses are serious and often recurring, they are treatable. Prevention programs, early intervention, and screenings are important and necessary parts of treatment and recovery.

Substance use disorders occur when an individual repeatedly uses alcohol or illicit drugs to cope with stress or problems. Instead of helping, these maladaptive behavior patterns actually make things worse and can lead to addiction. Repeated use can lead to health problems, relationship trouble, impairment, and disability. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 21.5 million Americans were classified with a substance use disorder in 2014. Of those, 2.6 million had problems with both alcohol and drugs, 4.5 million had problems with drugs but not alcohol, and 14.4 million had problems with alcohol only. 

For those who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness can also be an issue. According to SAMHSA, in 2014, 7.9 million adults struggled with both substance use and mental illness. In some cases, effects from illicit drugs can mimic mental illness symptoms. For example, alcohol is a depressant and can exacerbate pre-existing depression or even bring on symptoms for the first time. Further, alcohol and illicit drugs can lead an individual to do or say things they may later regret, causing strained relationships, trouble at work, and lead to health problems. The effects of these incidents can trigger anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

In other instances, those who already struggle with mental illness often try to self medicate with alcohol and drugs. Substance use may temporarily ease pain from mental illness and over time, individuals can come to rely on this unhealthy method of coping. Without professional treatment, self medication can lead to more problems and potential addiction.

Mental health screenings were created recognizing the need for people to identify early symptoms of substance use and mental illness. A recent study published in Health Services Research showed that the timely screening and treatment of mental health problems may prevent the development of substance use disorders.

National Alcohol Screening Day, April 7th, raises awareness about alcohol and substance use disorders, while providing the public with screening and treatment resources. To help individuals assess their drinking and substance use patterns, the nonprofit, Screening for Mental Health, is promoting www.HowDoYouScore.org. The online resource offers anonymous screenings for alcohol and substance use as well as resources for treatment and recovery.

Mental health and substance use disorders are common and can be serious, but they are also treatable. Screenings are an effective first step and follow-up with a mental health clinician can make recovery possible. Share www.HowDoYouScore.org with a loved one to help increase awareness of these co-occurring disorders.

Douglas Jacobs M.D., a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, is Founder and Medical Director of Screening for Mental Health, Inc.

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