Opioids are a class of very strong pain relievers. They include medications such as acetaminophen/oxycodone (Percocet), morphine (Kadian), and oxycodone (OxyContin).

Doctors typically prescribe opioids to relieve pain after surgery or an injury. In 2019, doctors in the United States wrote more than 153 million prescriptions for these medications.

While these medications are very effective pain relievers, people who take them are also prone to misuse and the development of physical and psychological dependence.

People who have a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety are more likely to get opioid prescriptions. They’re also at greater risk of developing an opioid use disorder.

Opioid use is very common among people with mental health conditions.

About 16 percent of adults in the United States have a mental health condition, yet they receive more than half of all opioid prescriptions, according to a 2017 study.

People with mood and anxiety disorders are more than three times as likely to use these medications than people without mental health conditions, the study notes.

People with depression are also 3.63 times as likely to misuse opioids, according to a 2018 study involving people with chronic pain.

More severe depression was associated with a higher risk of opioid misuse. When compared with study participants without depression, participants with severe depression were 14.66 times as likely to misuse opioids.

Having a mental health condition also increases your odds of using opioids long term. Adults with mood disorders are around twice as likely to take these medications for long periods than those with no mental health conditions.

A reverse relationship also exists, with some evidence suggesting that opioid use can contribute to symptoms of a mental health condition.

A 2016 study looked at rates of depression in adults across three large healthcare systems, using data collected between 2002 and 2012.

Between 8.4 and 11.6 percent of people who used opioids for 1 to 30 days developed depression within the 12 months following their opioid use.

The longer they used opioids, the greater their risk of developing depression.

A different 2016 study looked at rates of depression in people within the Veterans Health Administration (VA) system who were prescribed opioids for at least 30 days.

Opioid use took place between 2000 and 2001, while the follow-up period for the study lasted from 2002 to 2012. Over time, people who only took codeine were 29 percent more likely to receive a new diagnosis of depression than people who only took hydrocodone.

A 2020 study also found that use of prescription opioids may increase the risk of both major depressive disorder (MDD) and anxiety and stress-related disorders (ASRD).

While opioids are effective at relieving pain, they can lead to physical dependence and addiction.

Dependence means you need opioids to function well. Addiction is when you continue to use opioids even though they cause harmful effects.

Opioids are believed to change brain chemistry in a way that makes you need more and more of them to get the same effect. Over time, taking increasingly larger doses leads to dependence.

Trying to stop opioid use can cause withdrawal symptoms such as:

People who take too many opioids can overdose.

In 2019, 49,860 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose. This is the equivalent of nearly 137 overdoses each day. Having a mental health condition increases the odds of overdosing.

There are a few possible reasons for the link between mental health and opioid addiction:

  • Pain is a common comorbidity for people with mental health conditions.
  • People with depression and other mental health conditions may self-medicate with opioids to alleviate their symptoms.
  • People with mental health conditions could have genes that increase their risk of addiction.
  • Trauma, such as physical or emotional abuse, can contribute to both mental health conditions and addiction.

If you live with depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, here are a few things you can do to avoid opioid addiction.

Care for your mental health

Avoid using opioids as a mental health treatment. Instead, see a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or another mental health professional to discuss a different therapy that may work for you.

Treatment may involve:

Take only as needed

If you need to take opioids after surgery or an injury, use only the amount your doctor prescribed. Once you’ve finished the dose or you’re no longer in pain, stop taking the medication.

Using these medications for fewer than 2 weeks before stopping makes you less likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.

Watch for signs of addiction

If you’re taking larger doses of the opioid to get the desired effect or if you experience cravings and continue to use despite negative consequences, you may have an addiction. Stopping the medication will lead to withdrawal symptoms.

See a doctor or an addiction specialist to help you stop using these medications safely.

Opioids are very effective pain relievers. They can be useful for treating short-term pain, such as after surgery or an injury. They can also lead to dependence or addiction when used long term.

People with depression and other mental health conditions are more likely to develop opioid addiction. Using opioids can also increase the risk of developing a mental health condition.

If you have a mental health condition, speak with a healthcare professional before taking opioids. Discuss the risks, and ask whether there are other pain-relief options you can try instead.