There’s something seriously troubling with how we educate youth about the dangers of addiction. We tend to speak of drugs as an alluring evil, almost like the proverbial devil on the shoulder, which they may get hooked on because they’re fun. The narrative of marijuana as a gateway drug epitomizes this approach. One thing leads to another, and before you know it you’re shooting heroin.
While this is sometimes the case, the reality is that addiction is far more complex. In most cases, addiction begins as a response to problems that already exist. It is a coping mechanism, that works for a while before inevitably becoming harmful and dangerous.
The statistics back up this claim. Studies show that around 67% to 69% of addicts have suffered or are suffering from one or more mental illnesses. Anxiety and depression are by far the most common. These studies also indicate that, in the majority of cases, the mental illnesses are not caused by substance use but existed beforehand.
In other words, depression and other mental illnesses are risk factors for addiction. Substance abuse is often a maladaptive coping mechanism, rather than the result of an irresponsible or reckless response to peer pressure.
Why does this matter?
This insight should not be taken lightly, and those of us who have worked closely with addiction know this all too well. If an individual is using narcotics as a coping mechanism, then they are at risk even without the substance. In fact, taking away the substance will leave the individual vulnerable and suffering from depression or other illnesses without experience in healthy ways of coping.
It also fundamentally changes our understanding of who is at risk of developing a substance use disorder. Decades of political rhetoric, as well as TV shows and movies, have given us an image of a “classic addict”. A young black man who lacks a basic high school education with a streak of sociopathy.
In reality, white Americans are almost twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder than African Americans. The numbers are even higher in people with high IQs. And rather than a slew of hardened criminals, individuals suffering from substance use disorders are generally the most sensitive among us.
Victims of trauma are at the greatest risk
Because depression and substance abuse are so often co-occurring disorders, certain life events can increase one’s risk of addiction. In particular, trauma has been identified as a relatively common precursor to the development of addiction. This is largely due to the connection between trauma and depression.
Trauma and depression have long been intricately linked. Children who experience trauma are at significant risk of developing major depression later in life. And adults who experience a traumatic event, even if they have never experienced depression before, are often later diagnosed with depression.
Trauma and depression are so closely connected that some studies have shown that certain individuals who only heard about traumatic events – such as the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 – later experienced depressive episodes.
It is no wonder then that trauma can be a precursor to addiction. People who have gone all their lives not needed coping mechanisms to deal with depression suddenly flounder when unexpected tragedies lead to the development of the disorder. Substance use can provide immediate, if temporary, relief.
Coping with depression and addiction
If you or a loved one are suffering from depression for the first time, it is highly recommended that you seek professional help. Depression is an illness, and simply trying to “get through it” usually leads to further suffering.
Medication has worked for millions of people suffering from depression. But it does not work for everyone and is not recommended as the sole treatment. Therapy plays a crucial part in treatment.
Mindfulness is increasingly touted as an alternative to traditional talk therapy. However, it works best when integrated with programs developed specifically to target depression.
How to treat addiction
Addiction is a complicated illness to treat, due to its expression as both a physical and mental dependence. For certain addictions, medical treatment is necessary. Going cold turkey can cause life-threatening complications and is difficult to implement through a self-withdrawal routine.
The best rehab centers provide a holistic treatment of addiction, targeting the physical, mental, and emotional factors. Seasons Recovery Center in Malibu, where I am a primary therapist, focuses on treating both the addiction and any co-occurring disorders, such as depression.
I am a certified hypnotherapist and recommend hypnotherapy as a treatment for addiction. Of course, no approach is foolproof and the course of treatment will depend on the individual.
What I must stress, however, is that going it alone is not a realistic option. It takes guts to reach out for help, but once you do, recovery is a very achievable goal.
Author bio: Dr. Nancy Irwin is a co-author of “Breaking Through, Stories of Hope and Recovery” and a Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Center.