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Dual Diagnosis


What Is Dual Diagnosis?

A dual diagnosis is when a person experiences both a substance abuse addiction and a mental illness. Another word for dual diagnosis is a co-occurring disorder. Some examples include alcoholism and depression or an addiction to painkillers and bipolar disorder, although these corresponding illnesses can occur in numerous ways.

Those with a dual diagnosis often turn to drugs, medications and/or alcohol as a means to self-medicate their problem. Perhaps they do not wish to admit to others or themselves they have a problem and a substance makes them feel temporarily better. However, there are definitive long-term problems with substance abuse. Often, substance abuse can worsen a preexisting mental health disorder or even trigger new symptoms as well. Also, if a person is taking medications to treat a mental health disorder, illegal drugs, medications and/or alcohol can interact with these medicines and cause adverse symptoms and make the medications less effective.

Types of Mental Health Disorders

A number of mental health disorders exist, and they can impact people in different ways. For example, some people may experience depression on a seasonal basis while others experience severe and persistent depression. The following are some examples of mental health disorders.

Eating Disorders and Addiction: Eating disorders include bulimia (eating and vomiting) and anorexia (eating too little food. These disorders stem from a desire to exert tighter control over a person’s body and from a poor self-image. A person may abuse drugs as a method of appetite control or to reduce feelings of inadequacy.

Depression and Addiction: Depression is a condition that causes a person to experience hopelessness, sadness and anxiety related to daily life. A person experiencing depression may lose hope in life and even consider taking his or her own life. A person with depression may abuse drugs as a means to escape these feelings.

OCD and Addiction: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) occurs when a person engages in repeated behaviors or cannot stop thinking certain thoughts. OCD can cause a person to lose control over his or her life due to these thoughts and actions.

PTSD and Addiction: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that occurs after a person has experienced a traumatic event. Examples may include a military battle or natural disaster. A person may try to use drugs or alcohol as an escape.

Anxiety and Addiction: Anxiety is a condition where a person experiences excessive worry or preoccupation with life and activities. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily relieve anxiety, but it can often come back (and with worse effects) after the drugs and alcohol leave the body.

Prevalence of Dual Diagnosis

An estimated 8.9 million Americans experience a co-occurring disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. An estimated 50 percent of all people with a severe mental health disorder also have a substance abuse problem. Sometimes a person can experience more than one mental illness, such as anxiety and depression.

What Treatments Are Available?

Addiction and mental health experts utilize a variety of treatments to help a person manage both illnesses. While neither condition can be fully cured, each should be treated to help a person live a happier and healthier life. Examples of treatments include:

Psychopharmacology: Treatment medications can help restore balance to neurotransmitters in the brain (such as dopamine and serotonin) that may be depleted due to mental illness.

Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy includes the use of counseling and group therapy to help a person deal with the emotions of going through substance abuse and mental health addiction.

Behavioral Management: Behavioral management is the use of counseling from mental health professionals as a means to help a person identify behaviors that can help him or her resist the urges to return to substance abuse.

Importance of Aftercare Services

Aftercare services are vital to ensuring a person can stay well with a co-occurring disorder. These can include participating in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or other various group therapies. Because these conditions cannot be fully cured, only managed, aftercare services are vital to help a person continue to resist the urge to return to drug or alcohol abuse.