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What is Polysubstance Abuse?

They estimate that around 28,400 people died from overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids. Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Polysubstance abuse is the abuse of two or more substances. It frequently involves alcohol as one of the two or more substances. It is possible for someone to engage in polysubstance use (PSU) without knowing. Especially as illicit drugs are increasingly cut with other substances. More and more, fentanyl is in various other drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overdose deaths that involve synthetic opioids including fentanyl, though not including methadone, had increased 47% from 2016 to 2017. They estimate that around 28,400 people died from overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids. Further, they cite reports from law enforcement that this rise is likely in most part due to the increase in illegally or illicitly made fentanyl.

Polysubstance abuse does not always involve fentanyl. It is simply increasingly more common as people are unaware it is even in other drugs. As mentioned previously, it is possible for people to engage in PSU intentionally or unintentionally. However, there are many people who choose to engage in polysubstance abuse, often involving alcohol. It’s possible for this to include legally or illegally obtained drugs. Regardless of the legal status, there are many dangers in mixing substances. For anyone using medication under their doctor’s supervision, they should absolutely discuss the potential risks of mixing with other drugs and alcohol.

Man looking somberly across mountain-tops

Dangers of Polylsubstance Abuse

Often when someone intentionally mixes substances they are typically hoping to enhance the side effects of both substances and/or to negate negative effects of any of the substances. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It does have some stimulating effects, but by depressing the CNS it slows breathing and impairs motor and cognitive function among other side effects. Mixing alcohol with other substances that also act as CNS depressants is incredibly dangerous.

The CDC states, “Among synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths in 2016, almost 80 percent involved another drug or alcohol…” If someone mixes multiple depressants, they are at serious risk for overdose and death due to many side effects including suppressed breathing. According to South Australia Health (SA Health), the potential side effects of mixing alcohol and cocaine (a stimulant) are from the mixture creating “...a chemical in the body that is toxic to the heart and can be fatal.” Furthermore, many people try to mix heroin and cocaine (speedballing) to try to offset negative effects of each other. However, this combination increases the risk of overdose and death through causing “...the body to use more oxygen while the heroin reduces the breathing rate.” Benzodiazepines and opioids are a dangerous mix and should be avoided if it can be helped, yet prescriptions for both at the same time are increasing.

Beyond the known effects, polysubstance drug use is dangerous for the unpredictability. All substances, including legal drugs and alcohol, have the potential for negative side effects. It depends on the frequency of use, amount of use, individual body factors, and so much more. According to SA Health, “...the more alcohol in the body, the less heroin needed to cause an overdose.” Polysubstance use is always a serious and deadly risk.

Mental Health and Polysubstance Abuse

It is not unusual to see mental health issues with addiction issues. With polysubstance use, there is an even greater potential for mental health issues or mental illness. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH),

"Compared to users of a single drug, polysubstance users are more likely to present with comorbid mental health conditions, misuse or abuse prescription drugs, are at a greater risk for other health complications, and are more likely to report higher ratings on the Addiction Severity Index."

For anyone dealing with mental health issues and addiction, it is important to seek treatment that addresses all issues. Some people will have mental health issues prior to any problems with addiction. They may use substances as a way to cope. Alternatively, substance abuse and addiction might bring about or worsen mental health issues. It is important to receive treatment that helps identify and address each issue. In fact, while some debate this, the government does classify addiction as a mental illness. There are innumerable circumstances that contribute to addiction. From the NIH, “In 2014, 20.2 million adults in the U.S. had a substance use disorder and 7.9 million had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness.” Addiction and mental illnesses are common. No one should feel ashamed or let that get in the way of seeking help.

Treatment

Addiction to multiple substances and any mental illness, or mental health problems, do make treatment more complicated. However, it is not impossible. It is just important to find a treatment center that is capable of treating all issues individually but also as a whole. Contact us today for more information and help.

Polysubstance Abuse Infographic - Sources: NIH & CDC