Addiction and Bipolar Disorder – Are they Related?

Bipolar disorder was originally referred to as "manic depression"; it is a serious mental illness that entails extreme emotions, mood swings, and energy levels. Many battling dependence has a co-occurring mental health issue like bipolar disorder regarding substance abuse and addiction.

In studying the possible link between bipolar disorder and substance abuse, research shows that roughly 60 percent of people with a bipolar disorder diagnosis have abused substances in the past. 

The true reason why a significant portion of bipolar-afflicted individuals choose to abuse drugs and alcohol is not yet confirmed. 

What we do know, however, is the following:

  1. Those with co-occurring bipolar and substance abuse disorder with no history of prior mental illness are often diagnosed after substance abuse causes them to exhibit more pronounced symptoms of manic depression. 
  2. Those with bipolar disorder that struggle with addiction are at a heightened risk due to both conditions being severe risks to their health if left untreated. 
  3. Bipolar-afflicted and addicted individuals who don't receive proper treatment are more likely to have problems with their relationships, finances, accidents and are at a higher risk of committing suicide.

The American Journal of Managed Health Care Study 

While we are still uncertain of why those with bipolar disorder also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder, several studies study the link between the two. One of these studies, conducted by the American Journal of Managed Health Care, found the following statistics: 

  • Fifty-six percent of volunteers in the study had previously struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.
  • Forty-six percent of the volunteers were addicted to substances at the time of the study.
  • Forty-one percent of the volunteers had previously been addicted to illicit drugs. 
  • The majority of those who suffered from substance abuse and addiction problems said alcohol was their drug of choice. 

While the AJMHC's findings did not present concrete evidence of a link between bipolar and addiction, their findings were among the first to prove that those with bipolar disorder are much more likely to develop a dual diagnosis - a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.

What’s the Link Between Bipolar and Addiction?

Explaining whether or not there is a firm relationship between bipolar and substance addiction is not particularly explainable. However, experts posit that those with bipolar disorder abuse drugs and alcohol at higher rates than those without manic depression due to self-medication. Those with mental illness (especially those with an un-or-mistreated mental illness) often abuse harmful substances as a means to self-medicate or mask the painful symptoms of their mental illness by abusing drugs and alcohol.

Therefore, since bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness, the link between substance abuse and manic depression is likely due to an individual's increased likelihood of self-medicating with harmful substances.

Unfortunately, substance-abusing individuals with bipolar disorder who attempt to alleviate their condition with drugs and alcohol often make their condition worse. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIAMH), abusing narcotics and drinking alcohol are proven to trigger manic depression and manic behaviors.

Other Possible Contributing Factors

Other contributing factors that lead bipolar people to abuse harmful substances include age, gender, and brain chemistry.

Males with bipolar disorder are more likely to engage in self-destructive tendencies than other demographics. However, females are more likely to abuse harmful substances to self-medicate internal underlying issues related to bipolar disorder. However, older men and women - who have not abused drugs and alcohol in the past - are not likely to develop dual-diagnosis-related issues.

Some other studies and experts believe that brain chemistry can also play a role. According to WebMD, those with bipolar disorder tend to have higher or abnormal levels of certain neurochemicals, including norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals, which are fundamental in regulating important functions such as sleep, appetite, and metabolism, affect a person's moods and emotional responses.

Those with bipolar disorder, in turn, could turn to abuse substances because of a subconscious need to stabilize their moods. Unfortunately, in doing so, abusing harmful substances almost always worsen symptoms related to manic depression.

Bipolar Disorders and Substance Abuse Treatment

Until very recently, drug addiction and bipolar disorder were diagnosed as separate conditions and treated as such. Those with drug and alcohol addictions were treated at rehabilitation centers, whereas those with bipolar disorder would be treated at a mental health facility.

In other words, before today, if you had bipolar disorder and a drug and alcohol problem, you would have needed to participate in two different treatment programs to treat your conditions. Fortunately, most addiction programs fully recognize the impact that mental illnesses like bipolar disorder can have on a person's recovery and employ mental health professionals to treat both conditions simultaneously.

Treating both conditions is known as, integrated treatment. Integrated treatment is characterized as various forms of therapy and rehabilitative treatments working together to treat both mental illness and substance abuse addiction.