Treating Co-Occurring Disorders with Science and the 12 Steps

By The Fix staff 08/21/18

Good mental health and sobriety can go hand in hand.

A patient and doctor sit on couches talking to each other.

Traditionally, the path to sobriety was thought to be straightforward: a person recognized that they were using drugs or alcohol in excess, reached out for fellowship, and mustered the psychological and emotional strength to abstain from mind-altering substances.

However, treatment professionals now know that this narrative is simplistic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), about 40 percent of people who have substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental illness. Candace Deese, a registered marriage and family therapist with MFI Recovery Center Mt. Rubidoux in Riverside, CA, says it’s even higher in her experience.

“Most individuals who come into treatment are diagnosed with a variety of mental health concerns,” she said.

Having both mental illness and substance use disorder, known as a dual diagnosis, makes treating substance abuse more complicated, Deese said.

“An individual who is experiencing dual diagnosis requires the treatment perspective that takes into concern the nature of both of diseases, and how the individual can engage in sobriety while balancing preexisting conditions,” Deese said.

Oftentimes, people are driven to substance abuse to try to escape or control the symptoms of their mental illness. Because of this, both conditions must be treated at the same time to help people maintain sobriety. MFI Recovery has developed a process for doing just that.

Understanding the Connection

In order to formulate a treatment plan, an individual and their providers need to understand what underlying mental health issues are present and how they play into a person’s addiction.

“It is hard to decipher who is experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression from suppressed pain and trauma. As a treatment team we gather with all professionals to ensure we’re caring for the entirety of the individual’s needs,” Deese said. “The client is seen by their counselor, a primary therapist, primary care physician and also has a psychiatric evaluation on site.”

Using this information, the team is able to set a scientifically-based individualized treatment plan for both the addiction and the mental illness.

Developing New Coping Mechanisms

Many people with mental illness self-medicate using drugs or alcohol. In order to live a sober life, the patient must work with providers to develop healthier coping mechanisms. Although it’s necessary in the long run, this process can be very uncomfortable at first.

“It’s an intricate process of support, since the treatment facility treating the individual is now disabling the only intervention known to block or cease the preexisting symptoms,” Deese explained. “It can be understood to feel like the individual is incapacitated and can become overwhelming, which can exaggerate the mental health symptoms initially.”

Because of this, it’s important that the client work closely with a team experienced in treating dual diagnoses. MFI trains all staff in how to treat co-occurring mental illness and addiction in a way that is kind and respectful.

“Treating co-occurring disorders requires empathy, grace, and patience. Therapists have to join the client where the client is at in their lives,” Deese said. “We thrive on a client centered focus allowing the individual the ability to participate within the MFI residential treatment program and identifying the client’s coping mechanisms needed for the treatment for the dual diagnosis.”

On to Self-Awareness and Strength

People with mental illness may need to be on pharmaceuticals long-term in order to manage their illness. However, this can be incorporated into their recovery, and they can still follow the 12-step traditions, Deese said.

“The 12-step process allows an individual to identify that there are things in life that we are powerless over, and that with community and self-awareness, one can begin the road to healing,” she said. This can be utilized while treating mental health, she added.

“There are healthy ways an individual can identify with a mental health diagnosis and there is support to assist the client in the healing process. There is strength when the individual is not defined by their diagnosis, but by who they become and by their abilities to manage and cope.”

MFI  provides affordable substance abuse and addiction treatment based on scientific methods and the 12 steps. They have a network of inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient and detox facilities throughout the state of California. Connect on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

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