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Co-Occurring Disorders: Mental Health and Substance Abuse

dual diagnosis

When someone is struggling with their mental health, it is not uncommon for them to turn to alcohol or drugs for temporary relief or escape. The short-lived high and feeling of physical and emotional detachment from reality that you get can quickly turn into an addiction. People eventually become numb to the standard dose of drugs or alcohol, causing them to abuse more and acquire a substance use disorder (SUD). If someone is diagnosed with a SUD and a mental health disorder, this is called a co-occurring disorder.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

A co-occurring disorder also called dual diagnosis, is when someone is battling more than one disorder at a time. Co-occurring disorders are often linked to substance use disorders (SUDs) and behavioral and psychological disorders. Mental health disorders and addiction are commonly associated as they often result from one another. The symptoms of both a mental health disorder and a SUD make the condition and consequences much worse for the addict.

According to SAMHSA’s 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 9.5 million people had a substance use disorder (SUD) and any mental illness (AMI) in 2019. When people “self-medicate” with alcohol or drugs to help numb the pain that they’re feeling, it puts them at high risk for addiction and, eventually, substance use disorder (SUD). 

Signs and symptoms of co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Social isolation 
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Sudden changes in mood and behavior
  • Risky, uncontrolled behavior
  • Severe and painful withdrawal symptoms
  • High tolerance to drugs or alcohol
  • Uncontrolled drinking or using

These signs and symptoms of co-occurring disorders are most commonly found with mental health disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs). The symptoms of a mental health disorder and SUD alone are a lot to handle, but when combined, it can be extremely detrimental to the individual due to the exasperated symptoms.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Mental Health?

Addiction has a critical impact on one’s mental and physical health. The symptoms of addiction and bad mental health combined will begin to affect your ability to function in your day-to-day life if left untreated. The two disorders will aggravate each other causing the symptoms to increase and worsen. Any addiction can be dangerous and unhealthy, especially when your health and well-being are at risk. When someone struggles with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, they’ve become accustomed to the rush it gives them after each dose—without realizing the damage, it’s doing above and below the surface. 

While opioids are not considered depressants, alcohol, and benzodiazepines increase the risk for AMI. While many people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and/or a personality disorder, etc., turn to alcohol or drugs to escape, addicts can also acquire mental health disorders due to their addiction. Co-occurring disorders are like fighting fire with fire; there is no positive outcome other than extinguishing the flames—dual diagnosis treatment. 

If your mental state is low, it will impact every part of your life. You’ll begin to notice that your work performance has taken a turn because you’re unmotivated and distracted by your emotions. Your relationships might also take a hit as you become too distant and careless, or the opposite—extremely needy and overly dependent on them. 

The most important thing when dealing with a mental health disorder, substance use disorder (SUD), or both, is to take action and seek help and treatment. Remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength that you’re putting forth the effort to change. AMIs and SUDs are not always self-treatable—you don’t have to do it alone and shouldn’t have to either.

Mental Health Disorders and Addiction

While the most common mental health disorders associated with substance use disorders (SUDs) are major depressive and anxiety disorders, many others could also be linked to SUDs. 

Common mental health disorders associated with SUDs are:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

When someone struggles with one or more of these mental disorders, they search for relief or distraction from the pain and discomfort—usually with alcohol or drugs. Mental health disorders alone will disrupt your overall psychological well-being. Your emotional, social, and psychological health are impacted—and substance abuse only exacerbates it. The state of your mental health affects your quality of life—your thoughts, decisions, actions, feelings, etc. If your mental well-being is unhealthy, you will lead an unhealthy life for yourself. 

Drugs and alcohol will only increase your problems, not alleviate them. Don’t hesitate to seek treatment if you struggle with a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder.

Treatments for Co-Occurring Disorders

When treating co-occurring disorders, integrated treatment methods are required to treat addiction and mental illness effectively. Dual-diagnosis treatments are most commonly associated with specific therapy practices, such as behavioral therapy (CBT and DBT), one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and recreational or activity therapy. 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — This type of behavioral therapy allows the guest to adapt behavioral management skills through effective talk therapy. In each session, you will begin identifying any unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and emotions you’re dealing with while finding healthier ways to replace them.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) — DBT is another form of behavioral that also utilizes talk therapy to confront any interpersonal conflicts. DBT minimizes unhealthy thoughts, harmful behaviors, and personality disorders through non-judgmental awareness and understanding of emotions.
  • Individual Therapy — Attending one-on-one therapy sessions is beneficial and essential when you’re struggling mentally and/or physically. Your mental battles are not something you have to fight alone. Having a professional mental health counselor to talk to about what you’re experiencing and feeling can be constructive to your healing journey.
  • Group Therapy — Discussing your problems and feelings with other people might be far outside of your comfort zone, especially when it’s people you don’t know. Often, group therapy sessions are effective and encouraging when you listen to other people discuss their faults and journeys. When you can relate with someone and see how far they’ve come since being in the place that they once were, it serves as a positive reminder that you, too, can heal and recover. Your story could impact someone just the same one day.
  • Recreational Therapy — When you’re battling addiction and a mental illness, it isn’t uncommon if the last thing you want to do is go outside. Recreational or activity therapy is instrumental to mental and physical healing. This might include physical exercise, hiking or walking, painting, drawing, journaling, or yoga. All these boost serotonin levels as you begin to cope with and manage your stress through activities. 

It’s essential to remember that you must treat both disorders when battling dual diagnosis. If you only treat one, more often than not, you will end up back where you started. Treatment options are available if you or a loved one are battling a co-occurring disorder.