From: Mark Jacobson
Peer Support Specialist
Dual diagnosis (also referred to as co-occurring disorders) is a term for when someone experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously. Either disorder — substance us or mental illness- can develop first. People experiencing a mental health condition may turn to alcohol or other drugs as a form of self-medication to improve the mental health symptoms they experience. However, research shows that alcohol and other drugs worsen the symptoms of mental illnesses.
The professional fields of mental health and substance use recovery have different cultures, so finding integrated care can be challenging.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.2-million U.S. adults experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder in 2018.
Because many combinations of dual diagnosis can occur, the symptoms vary widely. Mental health clinics are starting to use alcohol and drug screening tools to help identify people at risk for drug and alcohol abuse. Symptoms of substance use disorder may include:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Using substances under dangerous conditions
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Loss of control over use of substances
- Developing a high tolerance and withdrawal symptoms
- Feeling like you need a drug to be able to function
Symptoms of a mental health condition can also vary greatly. Warning signs, such as extreme mood changes, confused thinking or problems concentrating, avoiding friends and family and social activities, and thoughts of suicide, may be reason to seek help.
Psychotherapy is usually a large part of an effective dual diagnosis treatment plan. In particular, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps people with dual diagnosis learn how to cope and change ineffective patterns of thinking, which may increase the risk of substance use.
Medications are useful for treating mental illness. Certain medications can also help people experiencing substance use disorders ease withdrawal symptoms during the detoxification process and promote recovery.
Dealing with a dual diagnosis can feel challenging and isolating. Support groups allow members to share frustration, celebrate success, find referrals for specialists, find the best community resources, and swap recovery tips. They also produce a space for forming healthy friendships with encouragement to stay clean.