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Substance Abuse and Mental Illness

We now know that there is a clear connection between substance abuse and mental illness. When a person has been identified as having a substance use disorder and mental illness, it’s called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. We take a look at aspects of substance abuse and mental illness, including their relationship, how common it is, and the available dual diagnosis treatment options.


What Mental Illnesses Can Exist with Dual Diagnosis?

A person with a dual diagnosis may have one or more of a variety of mental illnesses. They may have a personality disorder, be dealing with a serious or traumatic life problem, be struggling with a mental disorder, or have a physical or cognitive disability.


What Substance Use Disorders Can Exist with Dual Diagnosis?

A substance use disorder can take many forms. A person may be abusing alcohol or illicit or prescription drugs, which is also called an abuse disorder. The ingredients in the substances being used, known as a substance-induced disorder, can also be a cause as can the dependence on or addiction to a substance.


Where Does Dual Diagnosis Begin?

dual diagnosis treatment centersMany wonder whether a dual diagnosis begins with a mental illness or with drug misuse. The reality is that either can cause the other to occur. As well, the symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse can mirror as well as trigger one another, making it difficult to know which symptoms should be attributed to which issue. To complicate matters further, the type of drug being misused can also affect the kinds of symptoms a person experiences.


Causes of Co-Occurring Disorders

There are as many reasons that cause an individual to misuse a substance as there are causes of mental illness.



Alcohol or drugs may be misused in order to ease the discomfort of a traumatic event like the loss of a loved one. Misuse can also occur when a person is experiencing stress at work or in their personal relationships. As well, the recreational use of highly addictive substances can also quickly develop into misuse and, ultimately, addiction.


To Alleviate Mental Illness Symptoms

Those who already struggle with some form of mental illness may misuse a substance in order to alleviate their symptoms. Misuse can also occur out of the desire to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms from a drug, which can also develop into an addiction.


Effects of Various Substances

In addition to the above, there are also many ways drug and alcohol abuse can lead to trauma that causes mental illness. For example, the ability to make sound decisions is drastically impaired with substance misuse, leaving a person vulnerable to risky situations. They may make choices that cause depression, anxiety, or another disorder to develop, such as breaking the law or contracting a disease like hepatitis C or HIV.

A person may also be more likely to develop a mental illness as the result of changes made to the brain by the drug itself, whether due to the immediate effects of a drug or its repeated effects over time.


How Common Is Dual Diagnosis?

Dual diagnosis is by no means uncommon or rare. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that, according to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, that more than eight million adults 18 years of age or older had a co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder in the year before. The national survey also revealed that 2.6 million adults had a co-occurring substance use disorder and a serious mental illness.1


General Symptoms of Dual Diagnosis

Whether you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are general physical, emotional, and mental symptoms associated with a dual diagnosis.


Physical Symptoms

Some of the physical symptoms of a co-occurring disorder can include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Shaking hands
  • Sweaty palms
  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Neglecting hygiene


Emotional Symptoms

A person can experience a range of emotional symptoms as the result of a co-occurring disorder, including:

  • Moodiness
  • Euphoria
  • Paranoia
  • Sudden changes in attitude
  • Fear


Mental Symptoms

As well as the physical and emotional symptoms of dual diagnosis, a person can also experience mental symptoms, which can include:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • A constant feeling of doom
  • Hyperactivity


Consequences of Co-Occurring Disorders

Addiction RecoveryIf left untreated, all of the symptoms of co-occurring disorders can result in various consequences. The person’s health may decline or they may develop a chronic condition. They may become unemployed and, ultimately, face financial difficulty. Relationships may become unstable, and social functioning may become impaired. Their risk of suicide may also increase.


Are You Self-Medicating?

Identifying co-occurring disorders can be a challenge for dual diagnosis treatment centers, but an individual can also find it challenging to identify this possibility in themselves or a loved one. There are some behaviors that can indicate that a mental illness or addiction is developing or exists.

The use of alcohol or drugs, whenever faced with uncomfortable social situations, unpleasant emotions or memories, pain, or the need for additional focus, can be an indication of a co-occurring disorder. If you notice that substance use has an effect on your mental health—for example, you feel depressed whenever you consume alcohol—this may indicate the need for dual diagnosis rehab.


What Treatment Options Are Available?

Mental illness and substance abuse are two different issues. Not only that, but there is a range of types and severity of mental illness, and each drug has its own set of potential side effects and effective treatment process. That being said, the treatment for co-occurring disorders must be carefully integrated.

Integrated treatment can involve addressing not only the co-occurring addiction and mental illness, as well as other aspects affected by them, including:

  • Treatment for medical conditions caused by the disorder
  • Guidance for improving nutrition and physical health
  • Help for improving and strengthening family, spousal, and other relationships
  • Assistance with any financial or legal issues related to the disorder

The treatment process itself involves many aspects as well. For many, medical detox is a typical first step because it removes the substance from the body while under medical supervision to monitor and treat severe withdrawal symptoms.

Following detox, an evaluation will be necessary to ensure that all symptoms of mental health issues are accurately identified so that the next steps in treatment can be clarified. The individual can then be diagnosed; this provides them with more clarity and, ultimately, a better understanding of their disorder and a more informed view of their options.

The treatment plan for co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse will depend on and be tailored solely to the individual. However, typical components can include education for managing symptoms, avoiding relapse, and addressing problematic personal issues or situations.

Individual counseling forms the basis of recovery, as it allows the focus to be trained on oneself and the resolution of individual issues and reaching of personal goals. Group therapy allows support to be obtained from others with the same issues and in a non-judgmental environment.

Family therapy helps individuals to heal and rebuild their parental, sibling, and spousal relationships. It also helps family members to better understand their loved one’s disorders, as well as mental illness and addiction.

Following the conclusion of treatment, aftercare forms an important link to lifelong health and sobriety. Aftercare includes continued treatment and monitoring for a person’s mental health, as well as any needed therapy for physical health and continued addiction recovery.


Holistic, Integrated Treatment for Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

If someone you love or you are struggling with both addiction and mental illness, BriteLife Recovery can help. Our specialized treatments are tailored to the individual, they provide several opportunities for successful and lifelong recovery, and they include treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction. Call 888-224-7424 to learn more.




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