Sobriety and Psych Meds: A Delicate Balance

By The Fix staff 07/02/18

For people with co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness, pharmaceutical drugs can be instrumental to recovery, but a knowledgeable approach is needed.

Woman holding and looking at capsule.

Psychiatric medications have enabled millions of people with mental illness to live more stable lives. Psych meds can diminish the symptoms of mental illness, and let people with brain disorders function in the world. For people with serious mental illness, finding medication that works is often a key first step to reclaiming their lives.

However, there is also a dark side to psych meds. Many have intense side effects that leave the users feeling numb. Others carry a risk of addiction or potential for abuse. Because of this, finding a treatment plan that works can be complicated for people who have a dual diagnosis of substance use disorder and a mental illness.

“People are often not taking their medications or taking too many meds,” says Hanna LeBaron, the clinical director at Maple Mountain Recovery, a trauma-informed addiction treatment center outside Salt Lake City that treats many patients with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder. “We’re even starting to get clients who come with being addicted to psych meds.”

Whereas some treatment centers are wary of treating substance use and trauma together, at Maple Mountain providers are adept at addressing trauma and establishing a healthy plan for the future, even for people who are dealing with a mental health diagnosis in addition to trauma.

“After completing their trauma work, clients are able to move on with their lives without being burdened by their past anymore,” LeBaron says.

Defining Hope For The Future

When a client comes in with a dual diagnosis (or receives one in treatment), the most important thing is to teach them about their illness and help them envision what their future can look like, LeBaron says.

“Clients need to be educated about their diagnosis, what it means and how to live with it,” she says. “That way they can have hope. They know this diagnosis doesn’t mean they can’t be living a healthy, functional life.”

Even for clients with severe mental illness, the mental health providers and counselors at Maple Mountain work to establish goals for life after treatment.

“We find the highest functioning level possible for that person,” LeBaron says.

Examining The Medicine Cabinet

Often times, the next step in treatment for co-occurring disorders is to evaluate what medications a patient is on. Too often, LeBaron sees patients come in with too many medications, some of which can negatively interact with each other.

“Sometimes doctors just keep adding and adding and adding medications,” she says.

Although this is done to try to alleviate symptoms, it can leave clients feeling entirely numb.

“These people are alive, but they’re not living,” LeBaron says.

In these cases, Maple Mountain helps the client find a new medication routine that will better serve their needs. This involves working closely with psychiatrists who understand the interaction of addiction and mental illness.

“Sometimes we have to wean them off medication to see their base level of functioning and determine what is actually needed,” LeBaron said.

Less Is More
Psychiatric medications can be a huge blessing for people with mental illness. In most cases, however, less is more, LeBaron says. Finding the right medication that relieves symptoms without overpowering a person with side effects is key.

The psychiatric providers at Maple Mountain work to find medications that are efficient without over prescribing.

“They have those ethics and understand that they’re not going to give the client more than what they absolutely need,” LeBaron says.

Getting The Patient On Board

Just like drugs and alcohol can become a maladaptive coping strategy for people living with mental illness, taking many medications can do the same. Oftentimes patients are hesitant to give up their medications because even with the negative consequences the medications provide a sense of stability, LeBaron says.

“Sometimes they get resistant,” she says. “A lot of time it is because we get so busy, we don’t want to invest in ourselves. There’s a mentality of ‘just take a pill.’ It’s easy to take a pill.”

Letting go of that safety net can be daunting, but ultimately it allows people with mental illness to live a more fulfilled life, LeBaron says.

“They have to be a little uncomfortable as they start feeling again,” LeBaron explains. “Once they understand that there’s more to life and that they can learn new coping skills, they do feel more comfortable letting go.”

Over time, the staff at Maple Mountain aim to help people on medication long-term see it as part of their holistic treatment program, rather than a silver bullet.

“The medication is not the answer,” LeBaron says. “Medication is there to support and assist, but it’s never the only method of healing and therapy. It shouldn’t be.”

Maple Mountain Recovery is a trauma-informed addiction treatment center in Mapleton, Utah. Learn more about their program at and follow them on Facebook.

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