Drug Use and Mental Health Problems: What’s the Connection?

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Michael Phelps at Olympic medal ceremony

©Shutterstock/Petr Toman

Earlier this year, Olympic record-breaker Michael Phelps shared a part of his personal story he hadn’t talked about publicly before. Phelps—who won 28 Olympic medals (including 23 gold medals) in swimming between 2004 and 2012—revealed that, at the end of each Olympics, he felt seriously depressed.

Running…into trouble

Phelps said he tried to escape the depression by using drugs—they were his way of running from “whatever it was I wanted to run from.” Fortunately, he asked for help and got treatment for both his depression and his drug use.

Like Michael Phelps, a lot of people have both drug problems and mental health issues (sometimes called "co-occurring disorders"). About half of the people who experience a mental illness will also have a problem with drugs at some point in their lives, and vice versa.

Which comes first?

Even though problems with drugs and mental health often happen together, it’s hard to be sure which one first affects a person. Research suggests that either one could lead to the other:

  • Mental disorders leading to drug problems. As Michael Phelps described, a person with anxiety or depression may turn to drugs to try and get relief. But this temporary “relief” usually creates other problems.
  • Drug use leading to mental health issues. For example, research has shown that some people who use marijuana have an increased risk of psychosis. Also, using drugs can lead to depression and anxiety when the drug’s effects wear off. And some people become depressed when they realize they’re addicted and struggle to stop using.

The good news is that treating either problem reduces the chances that the other one will develop. And if someone has both problems, they should be treated at the same time.

If you think that you or someone you know may have a drug or other mental health problem, we have free resources that can help. For information and referrals for mental health or drug use treatment, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Learn more about the combination of drug problems and mental health issues.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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