A dual diagnosis refers to a patient who has been diagnosed with both a mental disorder and a substance abuse problem. The challenges of treating either one of these conditions are many, but when the two conditions co-exist, treatment becomes even more complex. The good news is there is help available for individuals who receive a dual diagnosis, through treatment therapies and support systems.
The Chicken or the Egg?
In the case of a dual diagnosis, it may be hard to know which one caused or led to the other. In some cases, people may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with a mental illness. In other situations, long-term substance use can lead to the onset of a mental illness. Scientists know that substance abuse can increase the risk for mental illness and it can make the symptoms of mental illness worse. However, one does not directly cause the other. While the specific cause and effect may not be known, it is important to treat both the substance abuse problem and the mental illness simultaneously. Unfortunately, if one condition remains untreated, the other condition can get worse as well. Even if the individual sees positive advances in his substance dependency, without treatment for the mental health disorder, the individual is more likely to relapse.
Prevalence of Dual Diagnosis
While it is difficult to find reliable statistics on the prevalence of dual diagnosis in the United States, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has cited a few:
- Around half of all people with mental disorders also have a substance abuse problem
- Nearly one-third of those diagnosed with a mental disorder also abuse drugs or alcohol
- More than one-third of those who abuse alcohol have at least one mental illness
- More than half of those who abuse drugs have at least one mental illness
Some of the most common mental disorders to be accompanied by substance abuse include schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. In addition, some who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders also try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, attempts at self-medication usually only serve to worsen the symptoms of the mental illness that they appear to initially relieve.
A dual diagnosis is difficult to identify and it is even harder to treat. Focus must be placed on both the mental illness and the substance abuse to produce a positive result. Treatment may take a long time, but the rewards of learning to cope with both an addiction and a mental disorder can be life-changing – and sometimes life-saving – for the person struggling with the dual diagnosis.