12 Things You Should Know About Dual Diagnosis and Co-Occurring Disorders

By The Fix staff 09/09/19

Understanding the intersection of mental illness and addiction can help you heal.

A Man speaks while two women listen during group therapy

Rarely does addiction occur in a vacuum. Often times the pull of addictive substances or a genetic predisposition to substance use disorder are complicated by a person’s mental health history. When people are dealing with both substance use disorder and mental illness, they are said to have a dual diagnosis, also referred to as co-occurring disorders. 

Being well-informed about co-occurring disorders can help you (or your loved one) connect with the treatment that you need to heal. Getting into the right recovery program that can help you manage both conditions reduces your risk for relapse and helps you stay sober in the long-term. 

What You Need to Know About Co-Occurring Disorders:

1. Learning and staying informed about your diagnoses is part of getting better. 

Many people with substance use disorder are self-medicating underlying mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. Because of this, it’s very common for individuals to have both substance use disorder and mental illness. Knowing about, diagnosing, and treating both conditions is instrumental for recovery.

2. Co-occurring disorders are super common.

Substance use disorder and mental illness often go hand in hand, and both conditions are extremely common. Nearly 8 million Americans are living with co-occurring substance use disorder and a mental health condition at the same time, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

3. People with mental illness often turn to illicit drugs.

Many people with mental illness lack the resources to access care for their condition. In many cases, this leaves them turning to illicit drugs or abusing drugs or alcohol in order to self-medicate their condition. About one-third of all people with a mental health condition and half of people with serious mental illness have co-occurring substance use disorder.

4. Understanding of co-occurring disorders has increased.

Health professionals used to think that substance use disorder was a moral failing, and that mental health conditions like depression or schizophrenia were caused by moral weakness or bad parenting. However, understanding of both conditions has advanced rapidly, with science providing more information on co-occurring disorders.

5. Evidence-based treatment is available.

Today, there are evidence-based treatments for both substance use disorder and mental illness. Using medication and therapy, people with dual diagnoses can make great progress in managing their conditions.

6. Both conditions must be treated.

In the past, doctors thought that substance use disorder had to be rectified before a person could get treatment for their mental illness. However, today most health care providers recognize that the best outcomes occur when both conditions are treated simultaneously. This is called integrated treatment.

8. They require special care.

While it’s entirely possible to live a healthy life with a dual diagnosis, treating mental illness and substance use disorder can be tricky. That’s because some medications used to treat mental illness have the potential to be abused. It’s important that people with dual diagnoses connect with a treatment professional who can help them develop a medication management plan that addresses both conditions.

9. Substance use can contribute to mental health conditions.

Trying to figure out which condition came first can be a chicken and egg situation. However, research shows that some substance use can contribute to mental health complications. For example, there are some cases where early marijuana use has been linked with an increased risk for psychosis in adulthood.

10. Stress makes them worse.

Both mental illness and substance use disorder are made worse when a person is stressed. That’s because stress changes how the brain functions: For example, stress reduces the functioning of the prefrontal cortex which helps people make rational decisions, and increases activity in the striatum which can lead to more impulsive behavior, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

11. Genetics and environment play a role.

Genetic factors can increase a person’s risk for both substance use disorder and mental illness. For example, scientists believe that 40-60 percent of a person’s risk for substance use disorder can be explained by genetics. The rest is determined by epigenetic and environmental factors, like childhood trauma. 

12. Early intervention is important.

Teens who have co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness benefit greatly from early intervention. Connecting teens with treatment that understands dual diagnoses can help them learn to manage both conditions without either getting to the point of crisis.

13. Support is available.

People with dual diagnoses can find help from traditional recovery programs, but they might also benefit from involvement with programs that are specifically designed for people with co-occurring disorders. Double Trouble in Recovery is a 12-step program for people with co-occurring disorders. 

Learn more about Oceanside Malibu at http://oceansidemalibu.com/. Reach Oceanside Malibu by phone at (866) 738-6550. Find Oceanside Malibu on Facebook.

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