Co-occurring disorders are psychological conditions that exist in parallel with a substance abuse disorder. This is also sometimes referred to as a dual diagnosis. One example would be a person who is addicted to prescription opiate pain medications but also has Bipolar II disorder. Many people with substance abuse disorders enter treatment completely unaware of their secondary diagnosis. They may know that they have always seemed more anxious than others or struggled to find happiness most of their lives. This is not the same as having a formal diagnosis, however. People with undiagnosed mental illness are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and change the way they feel. (1)
Identifying and treating co-occurring disorders is important for several reasons. Recovery from addiction is a tremendous challenge for most people. When someone has addiction compounded with depression, anxiety, or untreated PTSD it only increases the difficulty of getting and staying sober. Diagnosing and treating the co-occurring psychological issue dramatically improves outcomes for dual diagnosis patients. Relief from the secondary disorder tends to lessen the tendency to self-medicate. It enables the patient to participate more fully in their treatment and focus on the work of recovery. An accurate diagnosis also helps therapists and clinicians devise a targeted treatment plan that best addresses the patient’s needs.
Ideally, a co-occurring disorder will be diagnosed prior to or during drug and alcohol treatment. That way a patient can begin to be treated immediately and observed for results in an inpatient setting. Treating each facet of mental health, in addition to the substance use disorder, leads to patients who are better equipped for early recovery. Conclusive research has shown that dual diagnosis patients who receive treatment for both addiction and the co-occurring disorder are more likely to stay sober for longer periods of time. (2) It is easy to understand why. An untreated co-occurring condition can not only lead someone to self-medicate but make life more difficult and complicated. Any number of situations can arise as a result from failed relationships to lost employment and these stressors can all contribute to the likelihood of relapse.
It is demonstrably true that treating co-occurring disorders improves the quality of life for people suffering from addiction. Practical research has also shown that dual diagnosis treatment measurably improves outcomes for these patients’ months and even years after treatment. The goal of drug and alcohol treatment goes beyond simply separating a person from their substance of choice. It is also about preparing them for a life in recovery which will allow them to become their ‘best self’. Identifying and addressing underlying psychiatric problems goes a long way towards building a robust foundation for recovery. As much of a challenge as recovery can be, we all owe it to ourselves to remove as many obstacles as possible to it. The unquestionable benefits of dual diagnosis treatment are what have led to its popularity and prevalence in the treatment field today. As the field of addiction medicine grows, we can look forward to more innovations along these lines.
If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction and/or a mental health disorder, please contact us for guidance and information.