Millions of people suffer from substance addiction, and many of them are in treatment. Sadly, an estimated 7 million adults in the United States are battling co-occurring disorders – meaning they not only have a problem with substance abuse, but also some form of mental illness. This ‘dual diagnosis’ has not been fully understood in the past. In fact, the government estimates 90% of these patients today still don’t get the treatment they need to care for both disorders.
Substance Abuse & Mental Illness
Many people with drug or alcohol dependency also have a variety of psychiatric problems, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders and personality disorders.
It’s hard to say if the substance abuse or the mental illness is the primary disorder, because each patient is different. For some, emotional instability can lead to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to calm their nerves and numb their psychological pain. In these cases, we’d say the person had a tendency toward mental illness, and the substance abuse aggravated it further. For others, prolonged dependency on drugs or alcohol can lead to psychiatric disorders, such as depression or hallucinations. For these people, the substance abuse is the primary disorder, and the condition was made worse by the developing psychiatric disorder.
The Problem with Treating Dual Disorders
If co-occurring disorders go undiagnosed, which with many patients is the case, one problem is treated while the other is not. These patients, however, require therapy, rehabilitation and often medication in order to keep the mental disorder under control. If improperly treated, these patients can spend a lot of time bouncing back and forth between facilities, or between a facility and the streets, relapsing and falling further into mental illness as time goes on. Some patients become suicidal, some become impoverished and homeless, and most will spend years wondering why they can’t overcome addiction.
There Is Hope for Patients with Co-Occurring Disorders
There is hope for those with dual diagnosis. More and more providers recognize dual diagnosis, and treatment facilities now have in place protocols for treating dual diagnosis patients. But there is still work to be done. Continued collaboration between physicians that treat each disorder is important, and education about how the disorders affect each other will help everyone understand how best to treat these patients.