Also known as having a co-occuring disorder, people who have a mental illness diagnosis as well as an addiction to alcohol or drugs are candidates for dual diagnosis treatment.
The population receiving the most attention these days is those deemed “severely mentally ill,” which can be a misleading term. While everyone with a diagnosed mental illness, combined with addiction, is dually diagnosed, not all are considered to be severe. The mental illnesses that fit into this category are usually schizophrenia, severe anxiety disorders, severe depression or bipolar disorder, combined with substance abuse and addiction.
In most cases, the substance abuse itself may be the causal factor in mental illness. Whether the illness is a by-product of substance abuse or if substance abuse stems from the user’s desire to medicate aspects of their mental illness can be uncertain.
Other types of dual diagnoses may include less severe depression, anxiety disorders and personality disorders, along with substance abuse and addiction. Many of these people can be medicated appropriately and become functional, which renders them less severely mentally ill. Others may continue their use and abuse of substances and never receive proper treatment. Many of the latter population are those who suffer from mental illness brought about by trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms are managed by use of drugs and/or alcohol and then that substance which “helped” them becomes an addiction. This may further their symptoms into a severely mentally ill status, without proper treatment.
The challenge in all of these situations is to properly treat the individual, no matter the severity of their condition. For many, substance abuse becomes the point where awareness comes from the public sector. They may get arrested for crimes having to do with either procuring illegal substances or from crimes committed while under the influences. While incarceration may decrease their criminal activity, it does nothing to address the causal factors for the behavior. Treatment will give them incentive to remain drug and alcohol abstinent, but their underlying (or perhaps initial) mental illness remains untreated.
Treatment for severe mental illness may involve drugs that are difficult to gauge. While some people will respond well to a drug to treat their condition, others with the same (or similar) symptoms will have terrible side effects and responses to the same medication. Therefore, it is important to seek a specialist in dual diagnosis who can closely monitor the treatment recommended.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.