An individual with dual diagnoses, also known as co-occurring disorders, has both mental illness and substance abuse disorder simultaneously. Either of these conditions can become apparent first. People with mental illness frequently turn to substances in an effort to self-medicate. Those who experiment with or misuse substances may worsen underlying mental illnesses. Substance use can actually change the brain in ways that increase the risk of developing a mental illness.
When a person has a dual diagnosis, both conditions need to be treated. If only one of these conditions is treated, there’s a good chance the other will get worse. For example, if addiction is treated but mental illness is not, relapse is likely.
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Conditions That May Co-Occur
There are many different types of addiction and mental illness that can co-occur. Forms of mental illness that may occur at the same time as substance use problems include:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Personality disorders
Because alcohol is so available, it’s common for people who struggle with mental illness to turn to alcohol for relief of uncomfortable symptoms. Other forms of substance abuse or addictive behaviors that may also occur include:
- Abuse of illicit or prescription drugs
- Sex or pornography
- Eating disorders
Signs and Symptoms of Dual Diagnosis
Symptoms of dual diagnosis can vary widely since there are many possible combinations of addiction coupled with mental health problems. It can be challenging for mental health professionals to determine if symptoms of both mental illness and addiction are co-occurring. When a person seeks treatment for substance abuse, they should be screened for co-occurring signs of mental health problems.
Substance abuse can mask signs of mental illness and, at the same time, a person under the influence of powerful substances can appear to be mentally ill. For this reason, in most cases, addiction needs to be addressed first so that mental health professionals can make a determination regarding whether dual diagnosis exists.
Symptoms that may indicate addiction or dual diagnosis include:
- Mood swings
- Unexpected changes in behavior or personality
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Avoiding social activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
Treating Dual Diagnosis
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the most effective form of treatment for dual diagnosis is integrated treatment, in which the individual receives treatment for both substance abuse and mental illness simultaneously. Other approaches include treating the conditions sequentially, which would mean treating either addiction or mental illness first and then treating the other condition. In some cases, separate conditions are treated by separate mental health professionals, but if these professionals don’t communicate with each other, treatment may not be successful.
Recovery from a dual diagnosis often begins with inpatient detoxification and rehabilitation from substance use. In this type of setting, an individual is monitored by trained medical staff while detoxing from substances in a safe and supportive environment.
Treatment of mental health challenges should begin as soon as possible after detoxification. Psychotherapy is usually a big part of treating a person with a dual diagnosis. Treatment with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help the individual learn new coping skills and change ineffective thought patterns that could trigger a return to substance use. Some forms of mental illness benefit from treatment using medications such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers.
Support Groups for Recovering from Dual Diagnosis
Participation in support groups can help a person with dual diagnosis feel less alone or unique. If they believe their problems are something that others don’t experience, it can lead to a sense of isolation. Interacting with others who share similar struggles can reduce this sense of isolation and provide a supportive environment for sharing challenges and learning about recovery.
Options for support groups include group therapy as well as groups that focus on addiction recovery. Those who have dual diagnosis may also benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or non-12-step recovery programs such as SMART Recovery.
If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and a mental health disorder, please call us at (310) 455-5258 or submit the form below to learn more about our dual diagnosis treatment programs in Los Angeles.