Mental Health and Substance Abuse

When Substance Abuse and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand

It’s called a dual diagnosis, and it means having a substance use disorder as well as a mental illness. If you struggle with substance abuse, you should be screened for mental health. If you have a mental health issue, you should be cautious about drinking and using drugs. The two go hand in hand, and to have one with the other is not uncommon. It means that you need to address both issues in order to be well and healthy.

Why a Dual Diagnosis?

The co-occurrence of mental illness and substance abuse is also called comorbidity. Having one with the other is common for a number of reasons. If you are addicted to drugs, you are twice as likely as the general population to also be diagnosed with a mental illness, especially a mood disorder. The opposite is also true. If you have a mood disorder, you are twice as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and develop an addiction.

There are a number of reasons why these two issues go together. For instance, one can cause another. If you struggle with a mood disorder, you might turn to drugs or drinking as a form of self-medication. This is particularly likely if you don’t get treatment for your mental illness. On the other hand, drug abuse can cause symptoms of mental illness to develop. Both mental illness and substance abuse also have several risk factors in common: family history, stress, trauma and early exposure to drugs, among others.

Comorbidity Varies With Ethnicity

Hispanics are more likely to abuse both alcohol and drugs together than other ethnic groups. Hispanics are also more likely than white Americans to struggle with depression in addition to a substance use disorder. Why these disparities occur is not fully understood, but what we know for sure is that no ethnic group is immune. Among all Americans with an addiction, nearly half are also struggling with mental illness. Different cultural values, opportunities and experiences may account for the subtle variations.

Treatment for a Dual Diagnosis

Getting a dual diagnosis is discouraging. If you have had this experience, you might have felt helpless. You struggle with using drugs, and now you also have to deal with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder? How are you expected to cope? The good news is that treatment for comorbidity is advancing all the time. There was a time when treating both addiction and mental illness at the same time was discouraged, but times have changed.

Today, researchers have found that treating both at the same time is the most effective way to help someone with a dual diagnosis. Often the addiction is more immediate. It is life-threatening, and when overdose is a possibility, it seems like getting addiction treatment is the more pressing need. Many treatment facilities for addiction are now equipped to also treat mental illness. In fact, many will screen all of their patients for mental illnesses. Treatment for addiction and detoxing from drugs or alcohol may be immediate, but during long-term therapy, both the mental illness and the addiction should be addressed.

If you are questioning your substance use and feel like you need help, now is the time to reach out. And if you think you might be abusing substances to medicate or hide from troubling thoughts and moods, you might end up with a dual diagnosis. The important thing is that you recognize your struggle and ask for help. Only then can you get treatment and start to feel better.

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