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Depression and Opioid Use Go Hand in Hand

Did you know that more than 40 percent of people who live with addiction also have another mental health challenge of some kind? It’s no surprise that the correlation between mental health and drug use is extremely connected and it’s important for both those living with addiction and their loved ones to understand this relationship.

Below outlines the connection between opioid use and mental health and how using opioids can impact those living with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

Depression and Opioid Use Go Hand in Hand

Drug addiction is much more than a crime wave or epidemic. It is a mental health concern and the numbers prove it. According to a study done by St. Louis University, 10 percent of over 100,000 patients prescribed opioids developed depression after a month of using the medications. Bafflingly, these were patients that had not received a diagnosis of depression prior to treatment. This proves that those who use painkillers or opioids (either legally or illegally) have a higher chance of developing an addiction. Vice versa, those with a pre-existing mental illness are more likely to become addicted to opioids.

Both mental illness and drug addiction change the brain in fundamental ways. While scientists don’t know the exact brain chemistry connection between mental health and drug use, some suggest that opioids change the brain’s reward and pleasure system and hormone levels. Further, some researchers have found that opioids are less effective for those that experience depression, meaning that they need more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. This is why it’s important for doctors to screen medical patients thoroughly for any mental health red flags before prescribing opioids or painkillers.

Dual Diagnoses

Dual diagnoses can be made up of any combination of a mental illness and an addiction. The most common dual diagnoses are those that include depression. It’s important to understand dual diagnoses because treatment for those with dual diagnoses will differ than treatment for those just experiencing addiction.

Why So Many Co-Occurring Disorders?

As mentioned above, researchers and doctors aren’t entirely sure why mental illness and drug use are so intertwined, and we can’t say that one causes the other, but some researchers suggest the following:

  1. Drug use may bring about symptoms of mental illness.
  2. Mental disorders can lead to drug use because of the need to self-medicate.
  3. Those with mental illness may have overlapping genetic vulnerabilities or be predisposed to addiction and mental disorders.
  4. Those with co-occurring diagnoses may have overlapping environmental triggers, such as physical or emotional abuse, stress or trauma.
  5. Drug use and mental illness develop over time and can change the way our brains function.

Depression and substance use impact each other, and one condition can often make the other worse. Many individuals living with depression reach for opioids as a way to lift their spirits or to numb painful thoughts, and unfortunately, their opioid addiction can translate into a lost life. Understanding dual diagnoses and how mental health influences drug use and vice versa is an important first step in getting our friends and family the help they need.

Find a Mental Health First Aid course near you today to learn how to offer and provide this support. Sometimes all it takes to make a difference in the life of someone living with a mental health or substance use challenge is knowing how to start the conversation.


Trevor is part of the content marketing team for Detox Local. He has been in recovery and sober for over five years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness and general health knowledge.