Opioid Epidemic And Mental Health


The Center for Disease Control estimates that one in five Americans is currently living with a mental health disorder. And though these conditions are often difficult to treat by themselves, people may also be battling co-occurring issues that make mental health treatment even more challenging.

One of these co-occurring conditions may be opioid use disorder. Find out how the opioid epidemic and mental health are connected and what you can do to protect yourself.

Understanding Opioid Use Disorder

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a complex condition where a person abuses opioids compulsively, usually because of a physical dependence on the substance.

Opioids are commonly prescribed to patients with chronic pain, but their highly addictive nature poses great risks to people who depend on their pain-relief effects long-term. And often, a co-occurring mental illness can exacerbate the addiction, making treatment much more difficult.

Signs of Opioid Addiction

Drug addiction is an intricate health issue, and it’s impossible to fully describe what shape it will take for everyone. But some common signs that could indicate it include:

  • Strong Cravings: People can experience an uncontrollable desire to take the drug and prioritize their use regardless of their well-being.
  • Physical Dependence: Those battling an opioid addiction eventually feel as if they can’t function with the drug in their system because their bodies begin to signal the need for another dose.
  • Out-of-character Behavior: Drug abuse can make a person behave differently. People can become angrier, say or do things they wouldn’t normally do, and even engage in increasingly riskier behavior as their anger grows stronger.

People battling OUD often want to stop but cannot overcome their addiction alone, even though they realize their behavior hurts their lives and even the lives of their families.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms are often the biggest sign that someone could be abusing a drug. While behavioral or emotional changes could be subtle at times, these signs tend to be easily noticed:

  • Muscle aches
  • Feeling restless
  • Insomnia
  • Profuse sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure, etc.

These symptoms apply to both illicit and prescription opioid misuse.

Opioids and Mental Health: The Two Ways They Overlap

Mental disorders play a key role in the opioid crisis. Their very presence has had a significant influence on the number of opioid overdose deaths seen throughout the epidemic.

Dealing with mental health issues along with drug addiction complicates treatment and can make the dependence on the drug that much stronger. In general, there are two main ways that opioids and mental health relate:

Opioid Effects on Mental Health

Abusing drugs like illicit or prescription opioids can increase someone’s risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.

One study that reviewed patient data from several health institutions between 2000 and 2012 found that long-term opioid use increased a person’s risk of developing new-onset depression, no matter how low their dosage is.

Though it’s not clear why this risk exists, researchers believe it may relate to how opioids affect brain chemistry. The drug interacts with the brain’s reward system and alters hormone levels, which, with prolonged use, may lead to mood disorders.

Opioids as a Way to Treat Mental Illness

People who are already battling mental health conditions are more likely to become addicted to opioids.

First, they are more likely to get prescription opioids. It’s estimated that around half of all prescriptions for the drug are given to people with mental health conditions.

This effect may be explained by the core health conditions that make people seek this form of therapy, as the American Psychiatric Association states that people living with severe pain are more likely to develop mental health conditions.

However, patients may also be misusing these substances as a way to manage their mental health conditions. Since opioids interact with the brain’s reward system, they can temporarily ease depression symptoms and the signs of other mental afflictions.

This relief can be enough to encourage a user to keep taking opioids, eventually leading to substance abuse and addiction.

How Are Opioid Use Disorders and Mental Health Problems Treated?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if someone is battling these conditions at the same time, the best approach is to create a plan that treats them both rather than separate them.

In most cases, people will need a combination of behavioral therapies and medications to effectively treat both issues, such as:

  • FDA-approved medications to address the opioid use disorder, like methadone or naltrexone
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapies to learn healthier coping mechanisms
  • Talk therapy to address mental health troubles
  • Joining mutual aid groups to build a support system, such as Narcotics Anonymous
  • Antidepressants to manage depression symptoms, etc.

Addiction therapy is always tailored to the unique needs of each patient, no matter if it’s done in an inpatient treatment facility or an outpatient setting.

Can You Safely Take Opiates With a Mental Illness?

If you need to take prescription opioids soon, you’re likely worried about the possibility of addiction, especially if you are also dealing with existing mental health conditions.

Here are some strategies that could help you navigate this issue:

1. Try an Alternative Therapy

There are several other ways to treat severe pain that don’t include opioids at all:

  • CBT techniques to learn other coping mechanisms and change the emotional and physical triggers pain may have on you
  • Non-addictive pain medications such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, etc.

A pain specialist can help you access another way to manage your condition and avoid even short-term opioid use.

2. Speak to an Addiction Specialist

If opioids are your only option to manage your condition, taking them doesn’t mean you’ll develop an addiction, even if you’re also dealing with a mental health condition.

Talking to an addiction specialist may help you deal with this situation by first learning the signs of opioid use disorders and how to protect yourself from them. Increased awareness regarding withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly useful in keeping your behavior in check.

3. Stick to Your Treatment Plan

You should always follow your doctor’s treatment plan, especially when taking opioids with a pre-existing condition like a mental health problem.

This can include sticking to the recommended daily dosage but also not modifying other aspects of your treatment without first discussing them with your physician, such as taking other medications or making changes to your physical therapy routines.

4. Monitor Your Reactions

After you begin your opioid treatment, you should continue to keep a close eye on how your body and mind respond to the medications. It can also help if a friend or family member can do so as well and intervene if you experience withdrawal symptoms.

You can share your treatment plan with them as well as teach them about the signs of prescription opioid misuse. The goal isn’t to make you feel trapped or constantly under supervision; it’s just better to stay vigilant, especially if you have a higher risk of developing a substance abuse disorder.

5. Continue to Care for Your Mental Health Condition

The reality is that you may be at greater risk of a psychological dependence on opioids, as the drugs may help you deal with your mental issues in the beginning.

To stay safe, you should continue to care for your mental health and even inform your therapist that you will start opioid medications. They may choose to modify your treatment slightly, such as by taking you off certain antidepressants or recommending more sessions to help you adjust.


Though their relationship is complex and they can complicate matters to an extent, dealing with substance abuse and other mental health conditions at the same time isn’t a hopeless situation.

Behavioral interventions and life-saving medications like methadone remain the two best approaches to treat OUD, even if mental health conditions are present. With the right support and plan, you can overcome your opiate addiction, and the Curednation team aims to help you access that support.

Schedule an appointment with one of our experts today to begin your telehealth opioid treatment.


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