What is a Dual Diagnosis?

Do you struggle with a substance abuse disorder and mental illness? With a dual diagnosis, you can receive the proper treatment.

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A dual diagnosis is given when someone struggles with both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness at the same time. While it remains unclear as to what causes both addiction and various mental disorders, it is understood that the two often go hand-in-hand.

Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look into what a dual diagnosis is. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What is a Dual Diagnosis?

Drug and alcohol addiction isn’t an easy task to overcome. The addictive nature of substances warps the brain and body to become dependent on the consistent chemical influx. This is why withdrawal symptoms are often so intense upon quitting – the brain and body struggle to return to a state of homeostasis. ¹

But to take these challenges further, many people also struggle with a mental health condition alongside an addiction. What these people are really struggling with is known as a dual diagnosis. ²

There are no specific requirements when it comes to a dual diagnosis. Ultimately, it comes down to being diagnosed with both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness simultaneously.

In an effort to overcome both these conditions, medical professionals will attempt to figure out which condition came first. However, this can be a very difficult process. Mental illness often leads to addiction and, vice versa, addiction often leads to mental illness.

Statistics Concerning Dual Diagnosis

The term “dual diagnosis” was first coined back in the 1980s when clinicians discovered a growing number of people struggling with both mental illness and addiction. It came to their attention that standard treatments for both mental health and substance abuse weren’t effective. In turn, they jointed the two under a dual diagnosis condition and developed a specialized treatment for it. ³

If you’re struggling with a dual diagnosis, you’re not alone. Here are some statistics concerning the condition: ⁴

  • 9.2 million American adults (ages 18 and older) live with a dual diagnosis – that’s nearly 3.7% of the total population.
  • About 3.2 million adults struggle with a serious mental illness alongside a substance abuse disorder.
  • This number rose in 2017 according to 2015 and 2016 surveys.
  • In adults aged 50 and over, about 16 million struggled with a mental health condition – 4.5 million of those adults also struggled with a substance use disorder (about 1.5% of the total population).

While these statistics may be alarming, they should also be a reminder that much of the population is struggling with similar conditions as you. And, more importantly, help is available.

What Causes a Dual Diagnosis?

Medical professionals still don’t completely understand what causes a dual diagnosis. More importantly, this condition isn’t simply caused by a single matter. Rather, there are a number of cards at play that can lead to a dual diagnosis.

These include:

  • Environment – The place in which a person grows up or lives is going to play an integral part in their mental health and whether or not they abuse a substance. This can appear in a number of different ways. In one example, if someone lives in a stressful environment, they may be prone to anxiety and turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of relief. ⁵
  • Genetics – If you have a family member that has struggled with a mental health condition, there’s an increased you will also struggle with one. However, genetics isn’t a deciding factor when diagnosing mental illness. ⁶

It’s also worthy to note that a mental illness can lead to a substance abuse disorder or, vice versa, a substance abuse disorder can lead to mental illness.

In the former, people often turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with their mental disorder.

In the latter, people who use too much of a substance can trigger a mental illness. For example, people who use too much alcohol tend to be more prone to depression (especially, when they don’t have alcohol at hand).

The best way to properly treat a dual diagnosis is to figure out which condition came first. From there, it’s common for medical professionals to treat each condition both separately and as a whole.

How to Treat a Dual Diagnosis

After receiving a dual diagnosis, you’ll be given a number of options in terms of your treatment plan. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Detox – When you’re struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, it’s vital to clean you body of the substance. In order to do so, you must undergo a detox. Admittedly, this may be one of the most difficult parts of becoming sober.

    Detox requires you to go through extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms in order to return your body back to a state of homeostasis. In order to properly treat both a substance abuse disorder and mental health condition, it’s vital you undergo this process.
  • Evidence-Based Therapy – While you’ll be offered a number of different therapies to treat your medical conditions, evidence-based therapies are the most effective. This is because they’re based in science and already show evidence of potentially treating mental health and addiction. ⁷

    The two most common forms of therapy are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These therapies may come in the form of a group or individual session.
  • Experiential Therapy – While evidence-based therapies work great for most individuals, many like to dive deeper and discover subconscious issues they may be going through. One of the best ways to do this is through experiential therapy.

    These therapies often involve an individual going through an experience – whether it be guided imagery or role-playing. The activities involved in experiential therapies are meant to allow you to explore what you may have hidden from yourself.
  • Holistic Therapy – Beyond what we know about the brain and body, many are also turning to spirituality in order to overcome a mental health condition. While holistic therapies don’t usually work by themselves, they’ve had a lot of success alongside traditional treatments. ⁸

    With holistic therapy, you have a lot of options. From acupuncture to massage to meditation, the sky is limitless. And the whole purpose of holistic therapy is to reconnect your brain and body with your spirit.

It’s important to note that even though these are the most common forms of treatment for a dual diagnosis, you may find another form of treatment that suits you better. We encourage you to learn more about dual diagnosis treatment and how it can benefit you.

Final Word

Managing a dual diagnosis isn’t easy. In fact, overcoming drug and alcohol addiction alongside a mental health condition may just prove to be one of the most difficult aspects of your life. However, we guarantee with the right kind of effort, you can overcome it.

We hope this article helped you understand how a dual diagnosis works and why treatment can be so valuable.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning what a dual diagnosis is?

We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further advice to give – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA): The Science of Addiction

² MedlinePlus: Dual Diagnosis

³ Psychiatry (Edgmont) (Matrix Medical Communications): A Call for Standardized Definition of Dual Diagnosis

⁴ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States

⁵ National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Why is there comorbidity between substance use disorders and mental illnesses?

⁶ National Institutes of Health (NIH): Common Genetic Factors Found in 5 Mental Disorders

⁷ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Psychotherapies

⁸ National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH): Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?

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