Why Are So Many People with Bipolar Addicted to Drugs?

March 25, 2014 Natasha Tracy

About half of all people with bipolar disorder also have addiction issues. Why are so many people with bipolar disorder addicted to drugs? Take a look.

According to Substance abuse and bipolar comorbidity, up to 50% of people with bipolar disorder also have a history of substance abuse or dependence, and some studies have found even higher numbers.1 So, half of us folks with bipolar disorder also battle an addiction to drugs (including alcohol). But why is that? Why are so many people with bipolar disorder addicted to drugs?

I think there are two reasons so many people with bipolar disorder also suffer from addictions: one is that we’re trying to control the extremes and the other is that we’re actually trying to create the extremes.

People with Bipolar Try to Control the Extremes

The first case is the most obvious one: people with bipolar disorder are trying to control their bipolar symptoms and instead of working with a doctor to do so, they choose alcohol and other types of drugs. This often happens before a diagnosis – when people don’t know they have a mental illness – and they are just managing in the best way they can.

It’s understandable that if you don’t understand you have a disease, you don’t know how to treat it and it’s certainly understandable that someone would try to quell the extreme symptoms of bipolar disorder. Even after the disease is known, though, many people with bipolar disorder choose drugs over, or in addition to, medical help.

People with Bipolar Search for the Extremes

About half of all people with bipolar disorder also have addiction issues but why are so many people with bipolar disorder addicted to drugs?On the other hand, I suspect sometimes drug use is specifically used to induce extreme states. For example, people will do drugs to try and induce a manic or hypomanic state. People will also use drugs to induce a state that reminds them of mania or hypomania but it is not necessarily that mood, as such. The extremes of drug use can also compare to the extremes of bipolar disorder and if a person feels emotionally flat, they may seek to alter that state with the extremes that can be found through using drugs.

For my part, I do not suffer from an addiction as addiction runs in my family and I’ve always been extremely careful not to tread that path, but I do see the power that substances can have over mood and I do understand the need to escape a painful mood by any means necessary. I also understand the search for extremes, although I did it by jumping out of planes and running off of cliffs.

Addiction and Bipolar Disorder

All that being said, however, it’s critical to remember that people with substance abuse and dependency issues have less successful courses of treatment and, in fact, may not experience treatment success at all until their substance issues have been dealt with. And, of course, dealing with addictions is no picnic and many people with bipolar disorder never get to the point where they are successfully free of them.

So the next time you think that a drink is harmless or that you’ll just do coke this once, consider that we, as a group, seem to be predisposed to whatever makes a person become an addict, rather than simply a user. And consider whether you think it’s reasonable to impinge on your long-term health simply for a short-term high.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or Google+ or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.


Sonne, S. C., & Brady, K. T. (1999, September 22). Substance abuse and bipolar comorbidity. Retrieved August 30, 2017

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2014, March 25). Why Are So Many People with Bipolar Addicted to Drugs?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

March, 25 2014 at 5:50 am

I also had addiction issues in my family so I have remained completely abstinent from all forms of alcohol and drugs for most of my life. However I can completely understand Bipolar patients using street drugs to "self medicate" whether they are diagnosed or not because I'm sure there are many people like myself who have tried endless medications to no avail and still suffer terribly.

March, 25 2014 at 4:49 pm

Out of my area of expertise here, but I think drug and alcohol abuse isn't the same thing as addiction - binge drinkers aren't necessarily alcoholics, for example, but they are substance abusing.
I suspect that it's pretty close to the same percentage of the public without a serious mental illness who have substance abused in the past - I mean, what about binge drinking or smoking pot in college? They aren't all bipolar. Virtually everyone I know did some binge drinking in their 20's and most of them have no mental illness. In the military, binge drinking is common, from stories I hear from veterans. A quick google search shows that college students and military folks have substance abuse rates not all that much less than us supposed out of control folks with bipolar (the statistics were for CURRENT substance abusers, not those who EVER abused).
I do agree with others that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are probably (on average) more common among folks who have bipolar.
I have asked many psychiatrists about alcohol and bipolar thru the decades, and only one has had a view as cautious about occasional alcohol use as the author of this blog. What is written about online and what docs actually tell patients appears not to match up. A psychiatrist told me that a lot of this is CYA.
I do have an in-law who is alcohol dependent and I in no way mean to trivialize how devastating addiction is. This in-law does not have bipolar or any other serious mental illness.

April, 1 2014 at 2:00 pm

I suffer from both Bipolar I disorder and alcoholism. I used alcohol to calm or suppress my mania BEFORE I was diagnosed or remotely aware of my bipolar condition. After multiple trips to jail, mental hospitals, divorce and bankruptcy I finally found the right medication to subdue my mania. BUT by that time I had become dependent on alcohol and now I have very limited manic episodes...only drunken binges and alcoholism in its truest form. Early detection and diagnosis will help prevent more self medicaters like me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 17 2021 at 1:40 pm

Just read your statement some years ago. I hope you are remaining stable at this time. I have a son with Bipolar 1, he has suffered so much since he was first dx in his early 20s. Unfortunately, he has been in and out of numerous mental health facilities, jail, and even prison over the years. He struggles each and every day. He has held a few jobs for a few months and tried to take some college courses, but his delusions and paranoia always prevail! You are brave, and I pray you are holding strong! Thank you for your comments albeit a few years ago. Anita, Mother of a BP1 son. God Bless

April, 12 2014 at 8:40 am

I was really happy to find this blog, especially at this point in my life.
Though I would not classify myself as addicted, I have certainly turned to drugs and alcohol for both reasons that were described. I feel so strange and numb that I long for some kind of release. It's a really hard subject to broach and I'm fearful that if I disclose it I will lose even more friends.
I guess I'm reaching out to find some online friends that 'get it' and understand how I feel.

sandi wheeler
December, 4 2014 at 9:31 am

I feel the same Mandy. The misery of living with bipolar, and not getting the help I need by trying new medications is a nitemare. 25 yrs ago this didn't happen. What has happened with this system? I can't seem to get any answers from my docters.

September, 6 2016 at 6:43 pm

I have used hydrocodone for 10 years because it is like an upper for me and quickly improves my mood. About a year ago I switched to suboxone because it is more affordable.
I have only recently even accepted the idea that bipolar disorder exists, while it should have been extremely obvious to me for years now.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about a year ago.
I keep wondering if I am bipolar because of my drug use or if I was using drugs to manage the disorder that was already there. In my teenage years I was put on multiple depression medications and while I believe I did suffer from depression, I wonder if it was really just bipolar disorder.
After my wife left with our daughter two years ago my life spun out of control and still to this day it seems impossible for me to get back on track.
I never did take the medication that I was prescribed the day I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder but I'm starting to feel like there is no way I can get better without managing this disorder.

Richard Goodchap
October, 6 2019 at 6:20 pm

Because , 'Bi-Polar Disorder' can't be blamed on the Drug-addict. Even though this ephemeral (wishy-washy) diagnosis is not required to explain the mood swings caused by long term substance abuse.

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