Drugs, Alcohol & Smoking

It's not uncommon for people with mental health conditions to try to cope with their symptoms by smoking or using alcohol and other drugs. While self-medicating may provide temporary distraction from symptoms, they can make recovery even more difficult. Understanding the negative effects of smoking, drinking and taking drugs is the first step in making positive changes. Many people are able to replace substance use with coping strategies that not only help manage their symptoms, but strengthen their overall health.

Substance Abuse

About half of people with mental illness abuse alcohol or other substances. People with mental illness may use substances as a way of feeling accepted by peers or altering their moods. The desire to feel better is completely understandable; the paths people take to achieve this are what make the difference.

Substance abuse is when someone has a consistent habit of using a lot of alcohol, prescription or over-the-counter drugs unnecessarily or using illegal drugs. Once people are in the habit of taking drugs, the substances have been shown to change brain chemistry. That can get in the way of your ability to make decisions and can make you crave and seek out substances more. This cycle, if it's not interrupted, can turn into addiction.

Substance abuse is physically dangerous. It can get in the way of your basic functioning, like your ability to socialize, be in good physical health and do your job and in extreme addiction cases, even cause death.

Drug abuse and dependence can negatively affect almost every organ in the body. Drug abuse can lead to:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of heart conditions
  • Collapsed veins and infections of the blood vessels and heart valves
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Liver damage or failure
  • Seizures, stroke and widespread brain damage
  • Death

In addition to creating health challenges, substance abuse can challenge personal relationships and can lead to problems with the law.

Getting Help for Substance Abuse

A confidential online screening program can help you decide if it may be time to seek help for your substance use.

Talk to your primary health care provider about wanting to change your substance use habits. They can help you identify what methods to try and recommend an expert. Integrated care, which addresses your health needs from several angles at once such as psychological and substance-related may be an important element of your recovery.

There are many ways to get sober and no one right path. Treatment options can include:

  • Prescribed drugs to ease withdrawal and reestablish normal functions
  • Treatment facilities where you can stay while they help you withdraw
  • Outpatient behavioral treatment programs you can visit for help changing your habits
  • Social support, like family, friends and community organizations

If you do not have health insurance, publicly-funded treatment centers are available. For more information on these facilities in your state, call 800-662-HELP or visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.

Self-help and Support Groups

Self-help groups can be key to recovery. Members of support groups share frustrations, successes, referrals for specialists, where to find the best community resources and tips on what works best when trying to recover. They also form friendships with other members of the group and help prevent. Here are some groups that can offer support.

Finding the Right Treatment Program

Research has shown that a dual diagnosis is best treated with a treatment facility that combines both mental health and substance abuse care is important.

An effective treatment facility will also be interactive. People who work with their treatment providers have more control over the goals and outcomes of their program and will therefore be more likely to follow it.

Having a strong aftercare program will also promote long-lasting recovery. The skills and strategies learned in treatment, combined with an effective aftercare program can help minimize the risk of relapse.

Whatever steps you take toward sobriety, it's critical that you keep your mental health in mind. Continuing to take your medication is very important. Make sure any self-help program you join respects and understands your recovery needs.


People living with mental illness have a very high rate of tobacco use. Research has shown that almost one-half the cigarettes in the U.S. are consumed by people with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. This means that people with mental illness are about twice as likely to smoke.

There are many reasons why people start, and continue, smoking. It may be common in your social circle, which could be your friends or family. Other people believe that smoking can help them relax.

Whatever the reasons were that attracted you to smoking, there are even better reasons to make the rest of your life smoke-free. Quitting smoking means more time, energy and money to do the things you love the most.

Benefits to Quitting

There are immediate and long-term benefits to quitting smoking.


  • Your sense of taste and smell improve
  • Your breath, hair and clothes smell better
  • Your teeth and fingernails stop yellowing
  • You save a lot of money
  • You have more energy and time available
  • You're better able to socialize with nonsmokers


  • Your risk of cancer and heart disease go down
  • Your lung function can return to normal
  • Your blood circulation improves
  • Your blood pressure lowers
  • Your lifespan lengthens

Tips for Quitting

Though quitting smoking is hard, it is possible. Nearly 25% of people who try to quit smoking with the help of medicine can stay smoke free for over 6 months. When paired with counseling and other types of emotional support the rates are even higher. The quit rate for people with mental illness is the same for the general population, so everyone has a chance at quitting.

Quitting may take you several tries. Creating new habits isn't easy, but with time and practice, people do it. To improve your chances of success, work with your health care provider to develop a strategy for how you'll quit.

Some tips for successful quitting:

  • Set a date. Know exactly when you'll begin your journey toward quitting.
  • Get medicine. Over-the-counter medications like a nicotine patch, gum or lozenges or prescriptions like a nicotine inhaler or nasal spray can help you start to quit. Some medications have serious side effects so talk to your health care provider about options.
  • Find support. Tell your friends and family about your plan to quit so they can hold you to your word and help you when you're struggling. Join a support group like NAMI Connection or call 800-QUIT-NOW.

Some organizations with helpful resources on quitting include: