When we think about mental illness and substance abuse, it’s often tempting to put it in terms of “which came first, the addiction or the mental illness?”
When someone has a co-occurring disorder (addiction and mental health issue concurrently), it doesn’t automatically mean that one led to the other. Each one can exist independently, with their symptoms overlapping and contributing to each other.
How a Co-Occurring Disorder (Dual Diagnosis) Can Develop
There are a number of ways in which mental illness and substance abuse can develop.
- Drugs or Alcohol Used for Self-medication
A person may start experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness. They may not understand what they are feeling, not know how to access help, or be hesitant about seeing a professional. Instead of seeing a doctor for symptoms such as social anxiety, low mood, and difficulty sleeping, they turn to drugs and alcohol to mask or block them out instead.
If this type of self-medication occurs regularly, it can eventually develop into either physical or psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol. At that point, the person has two problems to deal with instead of one.
- Heavy Alcohol Use Leading to Psychological Symptoms
Alcohol abuse can worsen existing symptoms of depression, according to the American Psychological Association. Heavy drinking can lead to new mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression in those who previously did not experience them.
- Certain Drugs Cause Symptoms of Mental Illness
In some cases, a person’s dependency on drugs may exist first. If dependency becomes severe enough, the affected person may develop the symptoms of a psychiatric illness. These include episodes of rage, periods of depression, and hallucinations. The person may even attempt to take their own life.
Ecstasy is an example of a drug with the potential to alter brain chemistry after several years of chronic use. A person who uses it in this manner is at risk of developing anxiety or depression, which they may decide to treat with other drugs. At that point, it becomes a vicious circle of drug use to treat the mental illness brought on by drug use.
How Common are Co-Occurring Disorders?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 7.9 million adults in the U.S. live with co-occurring disorders (2014). Someone who already has a mental health concern is at a higher risk to experience a drug or alcohol abuse problem than a person without a mental health disorder.
The types of mental health issues commonly seen in those with co-occurring disorders include:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
How are Co-occurring Disorders Diagnosed?
It can be difficult for a medical professional to determine which symptoms belong to a substance use disorder and which ones stem from a mental health disorder. In order to put the pieces of the puzzle together clearly, the patient needs to be free from chemicals.
What is Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders Like?
The first step in treating a patient with a co-occurring disorder is to make an accurate diagnosis. The patient must undergo detoxification (detox) in order to break free from the influence of all drugs and alcohol in their system. Summit BHC offers medically supervised detox services where our patients’ progress is monitored by our caring staff and we use measures to keep them as comfortable as possible.
Once detoxification has been completed, the best way to treat a patient with a co-occurring disorder is to treat the mental health issue and the addiction concurrently. Treating the mental health issue without dealing with the addiction means the patient will only continue drinking and using drugs, which may negatively affect their mental health. If the addiction is addressed without treating the mental health concern, treatment is not likely to be successful either.
During drug or alcohol rehab, the patient will likely receive a program that includes individual and group therapy to get to the root of the addiction. They will also learn about proper nutrition and exercise and participate in a 12-step program as part of their treatment program. All of these elements will help them to develop a new, substance-free lifestyle.
For mental health treatment, the program will depend on the specific diagnosis. In most instances, both individual and group therapy will be recommended. The patient will likely receive medications as well. Occupational therapy, art therapy or a support group may be recommended to help a patient learn about or improve on their expressive or problem-solving skills.
We can start you on the road to recovery.
Dual Diagnosis (Drug Abuse with Other Psychiatric Conditions). Retrieved May, 2017.
Berry, S., Party drugs a big, fat downer. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved May, 2017.
Dual Diagnosis. Mental Health America of Westmoreland County. Retrieved May, 2017.