National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Becoming the Influence: Helping Young Adults Overcome Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

By Zach Culler, NAMI Communications Intern

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately one in four college students experienced alcohol abuse or dependence in the past year. Moreover, a 2011 study at Northwestern University revealed that one out of every four or five students exhibited depression while visiting the school's health center.

While the populations of substance abuse and depression do not coincide perfectly, it is reasonable to expect that a large overlap exists between them. One condition may even cause or exacerbate another.

Students who find themselves in this overlapping realm face distinct obstacles on the road to successful treatment. Since substance abuse can exist as a co-occurring condition to most mental illnesses, it may be difficult to isolate the symptoms of each problem. The two conditions--while manageable apart--tend to feed from one another. Failure to combine treatment can create the misconception that treatment for one problem fails to help, and unsuccessful cycles of treatment may ultimately discourage people from pursuing treatment at all. The sad reality is that mental illness rarely affects any two people the same. Symptoms depend on a wide range of factors, and more than one method of treatment may be needed.

The human mind boasts some of the most complex processes found in nature. When these processes betray us “for any number of biological, psychological or societal reasons” stigma associated with a condition may be just as damaging as symptoms themselves. For this reason, people often self-medicate through dangerous behaviors because they feel social pressure to hide their conditions.

Opponents of these social pressures, along with peer pressure in general, sparked a recent anti-substance abuse campaign targeted toward teens and young adults. “Above the Influence,” a movement that boasts over 1.3 million Facebook likes, produces PSAs and advertisements that advise youth to live above the influence of drugs and alcohol. The language of this campaign creates a stigmatizing boundary in which sober teens “rise above” their peers who have fallen under the influence “creating even more shame for the teens who turn to alcohol for self-medication.” Perhaps the time has come to abolish the harsh binary of living “above the influence” or “under the influence.” Instead, students should be empowered to seek a third option: become the influence, by seeking help and encouraging peers to do the same.

Reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness and substance abuse by promoting treatment must be the first step in helping college students, as well as other teenagers and young adults, combat their mental health issues. Through education and advocacy, mental health professionals can encourage youth to seek the proper combination of treatments.

For more information on mental illness and substance abuse, download NAMI’s substance abuse fact sheet and visit NAMI’s wellness program, Hearts & Minds, online.