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Published On: July 25, 2019|Categories: Mental Health, Substance Abuse|

Whether you have experienced it in your own life, or have witnessed it happen in the life of a loved one, you may have noticed that some people who battle a mental illness of some kind also struggle with substance abuse; or vice versa – someone diagnosed with substance abuse struggles with some form of a mental health disorder.

While not everyone will be affected by it, individuals who battle substance abuse or a mental illness are occasionally diagnosed with what is called either a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis. This is often a result of the way in which these two disorders instigate and/or worsen the development of each other.

What is a co-occurring disorder?

A co-occurring disorder is when a person struggles with both a mental illness and substance use disorder – their diagnosis is dual, or twofold, and they often experience symptoms of both. Individuals who have a pre-existing mental health disorder or substance use disorder are at higher risk of developing a co-occurring disorder than those who do not.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) estimates that over half of adults in the United States who experience a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness. When mental health disorders go untreated, substance abuse issues get worse, and vice versa. To get on the path to recovery, treatment for both disorders is needed.

Does a mental illness cause a substance use disorder?

Not everyone who battles a mental illness will develop a co-occurring substance use disorder – however, the risk is greater. One’s genetic makeup plays a significant role in determining which if any, mental health disorders will develop; the surrounding environment, too, may influence one’s response to mental health symptoms. Therefore, it’s not entirely correct to assume that mental illness is the cause of a substance use disorder.

For those who do develop a substance use disorder, it’s not uncommon for those with a mental illness to turn to substances as a form of self-medication. Conditions like PTSD, OCD, anxiety and depression can have severe, long-lasting symptoms that make daily life challenging. Some substances appeal to people suffering from a mental health disorder with the possibility of temporarily easing these symptoms.

However, alcohol and drug use actually increases the risk of potential mental health problems, especially when prescription medication is used, and causes more problems for one’s physical and mental health in the long run.

On the other hand, those who suffer from a substance use disorder may develop a mental health condition either 1) as a direct result of the substance’s side effects or 2) as a result of the negative ways addiction has harmed one’s life. Prolonged substance use has many negative impact’s on one’s physical health, which may cause a person to feel great anxiety or feelings of depression as a result of these consequences.

In conclusion, it’s not always easy to identify which disorder came first. Of course, each case is different, and some may be more clear-cut than others, but ultimately it requires the professional diagnosis of a counselor to know for sure.

Diagnosing co-occurring disorders

Diagnosing a co-occurring disorder can be difficult. The signs and symptoms may be overlooked or ignored by the individual, or they may simply be unaware that certain signs are indicative of a mental illness.

Symptoms vary in each person, depending on the mental health issue and substance being used, but some more common warning signs include:

  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope with unpleasant feelings or moods
  • Feeling depressed or anxious when using alcohol or drugs
  • Having unresolved trauma or a history of abuse
  • Previous treatment for substance abuse or mental health disorders that failed
  • Feeling depressed or anxious when sober
  • Family history of substance abuse and mental health disorders

Not all individuals who struggle with mental illness will develop a substance use disorder, and vice versa, but it is important to know the signs for the sake of proactively seeking treatment.

Treatment for a co-occurring disorder

To effectively treat co-occurring disorders, an integrated approach is used. In order to help a person recover completely and reduce the risk of relapse, it’s crucial to treat both substance abuse and mental health disorder at the same time. Otherwise, anything left untreated will threaten the success of one’s recovery overall.

When seeking treatment options for co-occurring disorders, make sure the program is designed to effectively treat both issues. Alert the team to your needs and goals so that they can effectively design a personalized program to address all symptoms.

To get in touch with a counselor today to learn more about dual diagnosis treatment, contact High Focus Centers by calling 800-877-3628 to learn more.

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