One of the most popular and prevailing myths about addiction is that it’s simply a failure of willpower. Spouses, friends, and family members plead with their loved ones, “Why can’t you just stop using?”

Yet the individual with an addiction doesn’t have a good answer, though they’ve asked themselves that same question a hundred times.

Our answer to the question, “Why can’t this person stop using?” is, “Because they haven’t addressed and healed the underlying core issues fueling their drug use.”

Those underlying core issues — which include loss, hopelessness, and trauma — also manifest as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and self loathing.

What is Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis is an addiction combined with a mental health issue. For example, you’ll often see alcoholism and depression occurring together in the same person, or opiate use and anxiety.

Increasingly, we’re discovering that dual diagnosis is the rule in addiction treatment, not the exception. Most people who have an addiction have a concurrent mental health concern.

In fact, according to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA)’s most recent reporting, at least 50% of the people who have a severe mental condition also have a substance abuse problem. (Based on our experience, we’d estimate that the actual percentage is much higher.)

Plus, JAMA goes on to note that 37% of people addicted to alcohol have some form of mental illness, as do 53% of people addicted to drugs. Clearly, addiction and mental health concerns are interrelated.

Addiction and Mental Health Concerns Go Hand in Hand

Furthermore, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published a Research Report Series on Comorbidity, noting significant overlap in addiction and mental health concerns.

As the report notes, “Data show that persons diagnosed with mood or anxiety disorders are about twice as likely to suffer also from a drug use disorder (abuse or dependence) compared with respondents in general.”

Put another way, untreated mental and emotional health concerns are prime catalysts for addiction. Substance abuse isn’t random; rather, it’s the byproduct of unhealed mental and emotional pain.

How the Addictive Cycle Begins

At their most fundamental level, addictions are dysfunctional habits that begin with an unresolved issue.

The individual may or may not be conscious of the issue, but they are aware enough to know that that they feel bad. Perhaps they are struggling with harsh thoughts and deeply uncomfortable feelings. So they reach for a drink or a pill to help themselves feel better.

And the drink or pill works; they do feel some relief. But since they haven’t addressed their underlying source of upset, it’s only a matter of time before they feel bad again. Then they reach for their substance of choice and use again.

The habit forms fast, and before they know it, they’re hooked. That’s the bad news.

Work with the Original Bad Feeling

Fortunately, it is possible to break the cycle if they work with the original bad feeling and heal it. Once they shed some light on the issues that fuel their addiction, they become conscious in a new way.

They encounter the parts of themselves that have been hurting for years, and they have a chance to offer those wounded parts compassion. Once they can do that, they’re well on their way to recovery.