What Is Dual Diagnosis?

November 29th, 2017 | By Allaire Kirk | Posted in Blog

Addiction and mental health disorders are both highly treatable, but when they begin working in tandem, the cycle of dependency and destruction can be incredibly difficult to break. Unfortunately, addiction and mental illness often go hand in hand.

In fact, according to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.9 million people in the U.S. experience both a mental disorder and substance use disorder simultaneously. The comorbidity of these two conditions has become so common that it even has a name- dual diagnosis.

What Is Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis is a term that refers to someone that is suffering from a mental health disorder and a substance abuse problem at the same time. A dual diagnosis is also sometimes referred to as a co-occurring disorder. According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, about half of those who have a substance abuse problem also suffer from some kind of mental illness.

While it is not always apparent which develops first, there is a clear relationship between mental health disorders and addiction. The National Bureau Of Economic Research (NBER) discovered that those diagnosed with a mental health disorder are responsible for the consumption of:

  • 69 percent of alcohol
  • 84 percent of cocaine
  • 68 percent of cigarettes
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With this knowledge, the NBER was able to definitively state that there is a connection between mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

A number of different combinations of addiction and mental health disorders can occur when someone has a dual diagnosis. Each combination has a unique set of side effects that make a dual diagnosis difficult to understand and even more difficult to diagnose and treat.

The Link Between Addiction And Mental Illness

When someone is suffering from a mental health disorder and substance addiction, the two problems will often interact with each other and create a vicious cycle of dependency.

In most cases, a co-occurring disorder will begin as a means of self-medication for a mental illness. If the cycle of self-medication perpetuates over a long period of time, the body and brain will eventually become addicted to drugs or alcohol to feel normal. Eventually, those self-medicating their mental illness with substances will begin to rely on drugs or alcohol to manage their day to day life.

However, mental health problems do not always come first. While mental illnesses are caused by a complex combination of a person’s genetics, environment and other outside factors, extreme drug or alcohol abuse can increase the underlying risk for a mental health disorder. If someone is already at risk to develop a mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse could be the thing that sets them over the edge.

Regardless of which developed first, abusing drugs or alcohol can make the symptoms of a mental illness worse or cause new symptoms to appear and vice versa. As the symptoms get more out of control, the cycle of abuse will continue to grow stronger and make diagnosing and treating the co-occurring disorder vastly more complicated.

Who’s At Risk?

While anyone can be diagnosed with a dual diagnosis, researchers have discovered a number of overlapping factors that make someone susceptible to developing a mental health disorder and an addiction including:  

  • Genetics: A person’s genetic predisposition can make them more likely to develop a mental illness or addiction. For example, if both parents have a mental illness or addiction, their child is more likely to develop one or both conditions rather than a child whose parents do not have an addiction or mental illness.
  • Environmental Triggers:  Things like chronic stress or traumatic events can often trigger a substance use or mental health disorder.
  • Early Exposure To Drugs Or Alcohol: Adolescents and young adults are more likely to get brain damage from substance use while their brains are still developing. Due to the potential effects of brain damage, they are more at risk to develop a dual diagnosis later on it life.

If someone is exposed to a number of these factors, it does not guarantee that they will develop a dual diagnosis. However, it may put them at a higher risk of developing one.

Symptoms Of Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis is often unpredictable and hard to spot. However, some common signs and symptoms that someone may be suffering from a co-occurring disorder are:

  • Unprompted mood swings
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Mental illness present before substance abuse problem
  • Trouble at work or with the law
  • Pulling away from loved ones
  • Intense delusions or hallucinations
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • Strong feelings of mistrust or paranoia
  • Difficulty paying attention or concentrating

If someone is suffering from a dual diagnosis, they will experience any number of the symptoms listed above. The longer these symptoms remain untreated the more severe they will become. Over time, severe drug or alcohol abuse can lead to brain damage or death.

Treatment For Dual Diagnosis

In order to treat a dual diagnosis patient effectively, both the mental illness and addiction will need to be diagnosed and addressed together. Since the two illnesses are so deeply entwined, treating them separately is incredibly difficult and often unsuccessful.

Due to the severity of many dual diagnoses, those suffering should seek treatment at an inpatient facility that offers specialized care for co-occurring disorders. While in treatment, patients will receive a unique blend of treatment options that will help them address the root cause of their mental illness and their addiction. The use of varying therapies and modalities also helps clients begin to understand the complicated connection between their mental illness and their addiction.

The most important thing to remember when treating a dual diagnosis is that the cycle must be broken, and this starts by identifying the root cause of the addiction or mental illness. Once it has been addressed, clients can work with treatment professionals in order to identify triggers and set boundaries to ensure that the cycle of abuse doesn’t continue.

When mental illness and addiction begin to work simultaneously, they can be incredibly destructive. Thankfully, mental illness and addiction are treatable and with the right methods, those suffering from both can live a fulfilling life in long-term recovery.

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