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Although mental disorders have been shown to predict subsequent substance disorders, it is not known whether substance disorders could be cost-effectively prevented by large-scale interventions aimed at prior mental disorders. Although experimental intervention is the only way to resolve this uncertainty, a logically prior question is whether the associations of mental disorders with subsequent substance disorders are strong enough to justify mounting such an intervention. We investigated this question in this study using simulations to estimate the number of substance disorders that might be prevented under several hypothetical intervention scenarios focused on mental disorders.
Data came from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), a nationally representative US household survey that retrospectively assessed lifetime history and age of onset of DSM-IV mental and substance disorders. Survival analysis using retrospective age-of-onset reports was used to estimate associations of mental disorders with subsequent substance dependence. Simulations based on the models estimated effect sizes in several hypothetical intervention scenarios.
Although successful intervention aimed at mental disorders might prevent some proportion of substance dependence, the number of cases of mental disorder that would have to be treated to prevent a single case of substance dependence is estimated to be so high that this would not be a cost-effective way to prevent substance dependence (in the range 76–177 for anxiety-mood disorders and 40–47 for externalizing disorders).
Treatment of prior mental disorders would not be a cost-effective way to prevent substance dependence. However, prevention of substance dependence might be considered an important secondary outcome of interventions for early-onset mental disorders.
The ‘gateway’ pattern of drug initiation describes a normative sequence, beginning with alcohol and tobacco use, followed by cannabis, then other illicit drugs. Previous work has suggested that ‘violations’ of this sequence may be predictors of later problems but other determinants were not considered. We have examined the role of pre-existing mental disorders and sociodemographics in explaining the predictive effects of violations using data from the US National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R).
The NCS-R is a nationally representative face-to-face household survey of 9282 English-speaking respondents aged 18 years and older that used the World Health Organization (WHO) Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI) to assess DSM-IV mental and substance disorders. Drug initiation was estimated using retrospective age-of-onset reports and ‘violations’ defined as inconsistent with the normative initiation order. Predictors of violations were examined using multivariable logistic regressions. Discrete-time survival analysis was used to see whether violations predicted progression to dependence.
Gateway violations were largely unrelated to later dependence risk, with the exception of small increases in risk of alcohol and other illicit drug dependence for those who initiated use of other illicit drugs before cannabis. Early-onset internalizing disorders were predictors of gateway violations, and both internalizing and externalizing disorders increased the risks of dependence among users of all drugs.
Drug use initiation follows a strong normative pattern, deviations from which are not strongly predictive of later problems. By contrast, adolescents who have already developed mental health problems are at risk for deviations from the normative sequence of drug initiation and for the development of dependence.
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