What Does It Mean to Have a Dual Diagnosis?

November 5, 2014

A nurse holding a picture of a brain

Millions of people struggle with drug abuse and dependence each year. When a person has a problem with drugs, they may feel like they have lost control of his life. Dealing with drug abuse or dependence is already challenging, but this condition can be even more difficult to manage when it occurs alongside one or more other mental health conditions. When a person has both a substance abuse or dependence problem and at least one other mental health condition, they have what is called co-occurring disorders, or a dual diagnosis. Although co-occurring disorders can seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome, they are actually completely treatable and mental healthcare professionals have developed several effective rehabilitation options that address all aspects of the disorders.

Components of Co-occurring Disorders

Multiple forms of co-occurring disorders are possible.

A person with co-occurring disorders may struggle with an addiction to any type of addictive substance, including the following:

  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens
  • Opioids
  • Prescription medications
They may also suffer from any of the following mental health conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Ways That Co-occurring Disorders Affect Each Other

While recognizing these disorders may be relatively simple, it is not as easy to see how they interact with each other. The National Alliance on Mental Illness explains that the relationships between the co-occurring disorders are complex, and can often be understood in one or more ways:

  • Drugs can be a form of self-medication: when a person has an untreated or under-treated mental health condition, he may try to ease its symptoms with substance use. While self-medicating may temporarily relieve these symptoms, ultimately it fails to treat the actual condition.
  • Drugs can intensify and worsen the symptoms of a mental health condition: because drugs interact with the brain and its communication system, they can put the person in an even more vulnerable psychological state, both when the person is using the drug and when he stops using it and experiences withdrawal symptoms. This in turn can make the symptoms of both conditions more intense.
  • Drug use can lead to the development of a mental health condition: sometimes a person without any mental illnesses can develop one after using a drug one or more times. Because the side effects of a drug are often dangerous and sometimes unpredictable, it’s possible for a person to experience mental health problems after drug use even if the drug has never caused problems in the past.

Treatment Options for Co-occurring Disorders

Several options are available to treat co-occurring disorders. Richard K. Ries lists the following three most often used forms of treatment:

  • Sequential: this approach, which has been most common historically, involves treating either the addiction or the mental health condition first, and then treating the other disorder. These treatments may or may not occur at the same facility and are often unrelated to each other.
  • Parallel: the person receives treatment for both conditions simultaneously, but the programs are led by different groups of people and they don’t necessarily relate to each other.
  • Integrated: this model uses a comprehensive treatment approach to co-occurring disorders, and the person receives simultaneous treatment for both disorders, often from healthcare workers qualified in both mental health and addiction treatment.

While each of these treatment options have benefits and drawbacks, SAMHSA has officially recommended the integrated model as the best option for treating co-occurring disorders.

Get Help with Co-occurring Disorders

Although co-occurring disorders can be challenging to deal with, it is completely possible to receive quality treatment for them and go on to lead a healthy and productive life. If you or a loved one is struggling with a co-occurring disorder, please give us a call at 615-490-9376. Our admissions coordinators are available to give you more information about treatment options.

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