Mental illness, substance abuse co-mingle

Lines blur between mental instability, misuse of drugs

By Kathy J. Peters


Women are particularly affected by depression — 12 million women in the United States experience depression each year, nearly twice as many as men.

While men are more likely to die by suicide, women are twice as likely to attempt it. Ten to 15 percent of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression and 9 percent experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is defined by the presence of persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive and unwanted (obsessions), or repetitive and ritualistic behaviors that a person feels are necessary in order to control obsessions (compulsions).

OCD tends to begin in childhood or adolescence, with most individuals being diagnosed by the age of 19. In the U.S., nearly 2.2 million American adults are affected by OCD.

Teens are at a particularly high risk of mental health disorders. Warning signs that should be monitored are withdrawal from friends, becoming secretive and hiding something, and losing interest in their favorite activities without replacing them with new activities.

Mental health issues directly correlate to substance use disorders as well as suicide attempts and completions. The coexistence of both a mental health and a substance abuse disorder is referred to as co-occurring disorders.

Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to diagnose due to the complexity of symptoms, as both may vary in severity. In many cases, people receive treatment for one disorder while the other disorder remains untreated. This may occur because both mental and substance use disorders can have biological, psychological and social components.

Approximately 7.9 million adults in the U.S. have co-occurring disorders. During the past year, for those adults surveyed who experienced substance use disorders and any mental illness, rates were highest among adults aged 26 to 49 (42.7 percent). For adults with past-year serious mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders, rates were highest among those aged 18 to 25 (35.3 percent).

Suicide is a serious public health problem that causes immeasurable pain, suffering, and loss to individuals, families, and communities nationwide. The causes of suicide are complex and determined by multiple combinations of factors, such as mental illness, substance abuse, painful losses, exposure to violence, and social isolation.

Prepare and prevent

Suicide prevention efforts seek to:

— Reduce factors that increase the risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

— Increase the factors that help strengthen, support, and protect individuals from suicide.

Ideally, these efforts address individual, relationship, community, and societal factors while promoting hope, easing access into effective treatment, encouraging connectedness, and supporting recovery.

The five action steps for communicating with someone who may be suicidal are supported by evidence in the field of suicide prevention: ask, keep them safe, be there, help them connect, and follow up.

• Ask: Asking the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?” communicates that you’re open to speaking about suicide in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Asking in this direct, unbiased manner, can open the door for effective dialogue about his or her emotional pain and can allow everyone involved to see what next steps need to be taken.

• Keep them safe: Have they already done anything to try to kill themselves before talking with you? Do they have a detailed plan? Knowing the answers to each of these questions can tell us a lot about the imminence and severity of danger the person is in.

• Be there: This could mean being physically present for someone, speaking with them on the phone when you can, or any other way that shows support for the person at risk and increases their connectedness.

• Help them connect: Helping someone with thoughts of suicide connect with ongoing supports (like the Lifeline, 800-273-8255, or local services and resources) can help him or her establish a safety net for those moments they find themselves in a crisis.

• Follow up: After your initial contact with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and after you’ve connected them with the immediate support systems they need, make sure to follow-up with them to see how they’re doing. This type of contact can continue to increase their feelings of connectedness and share your ongoing support.

The Center for Family Life and Recovery, Inc. is the area’s leading expert for advocacy, prevention, counseling, and training. As a community partner, it is important to us that we continue spreading the message of help and hope to our area and with those whom we work.

For more information, visit or call 315-733-1709.

— Kathy J. Peters is the advocacy coordinator for the Center for Family Life and Recovery, Inc., 502 Court St., #401, Utica, N.Y.  13502. For more information, call 315-768-2650 or visit