What is Dual Diagnosis

What is Dual Diagnosis?

Understanding Dual Diagnosis & What to Do if You Think You are Experiencing it

When dealing with addiction and substance abuse disorders, there is often a vicious cycle in which people turn to drinking or drugs to relieve pain or provide an escape from stressful or chaotic situations, when very often, those substances actually add to the pain and create more problems. The cycle continues and grows as the substance abuse increases as the problems mount. Add to this, a mental health disorder, and the results can be devastating.

People with substance use disorders often have undiagnosed mental health diagnoses, and their substance abuse may actually be an attempt at coping through self-medication. This combination of substance use disorders and mental health disorders has several names such as co-occurring disorders, dual disorder, or comorbidity. 

Simply put, dual diagnosis is when a person experiences symptoms of a mental health disorder and a substance abuse disorder at the same time. It is not one single disorder itself, but two or more existing simultaneously and feeding into one another. One disorder can manifest before the other, but their concurrent existence can often exacerbate symptoms and add complications to each. It is sometimes difficult to identify which of the disorders comes first, because it can be a bit of a chicken and egg situation: did the drinking started because of depression, or did the depression start because of the drinking? Understanding the roots and triggers of each is important for recovery, but identifying a dual diagnosis is even more important. And often, diagnosing is difficult, which is why seeking help from a medical professional should always be considered if you believe you or someone you know is experiencing concurrent symptoms. Some mental health disorders that are commonly linked with substance abuse issues are depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and ADHD.

Why is Identifying Dual Diagnosis so Difficult? 

According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, of the 21 million people with substance abuse disorders in the United States, 8 million of them also have a mental health disorder. This number clearly shows how common dual diagnosis is, but that amount could also be much higher given how difficult dual diagnosis is to identify. For instance, this number does not include people who are suffering with one or both of these disorders who have willfully avoided treatment. Many people often avoid treatment due to the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health, or because of a lack of financial means.

Another big hurdle for a proper concurrent diagnosis is that one disorder can mask or worsen symptoms of the other. Many symptoms of withdrawal, for example, can also be experienced in mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, people experiencing dual diagnosis may not be able to recognize that they are, in fact, experiencing symptoms of two separate disorders, and therefore may seek treatment for their one diagnosed disorder, while the other remains undiagnosed. 

Common Symptoms of Dual Diagnosis 

If you’ve already been diagnosed as someone with either a substance abuse disorder or a mental health disorder, determining a dual diagnosis might be a bit easier because you’ve already taken steps to address the issue and have resources you can turn to. If you suspect something else might be going on, then it may be appropriate to ask your mental health professional about the possibility of dual diagnosis. 

For those who are undiagnosed, sometimes it’s difficult even to know where to start. In this case, individuals may be aware of the issue but don’t realize things have gotten to a problematic state.

Here are some questions that can help determine whether you should seek professional help:

Regarding Alcohol & Substance Use

  • Has my drinking or drug use affected a relationship in an unwanted way?
  • Have work or studies suffered because of drinking or drug use?
  • Has my health been negatively affected because drinking or drug use?
  • Am I able to function without drinking or drug use?
  • Am I thinking about drugs or alcohol throughout the day? 
  • Am I in control of my drinking or drug use, or are they in control of me?

Regarding Mental Health

  • Am I no longer able to control my moods or my reactions to them?
  • Is my mood negatively affecting my relationships, my work, or my ability to function?
  • Am I experiencing extreme mood shifts?
  • Is my energy level affecting my ability to function? 
  • Have I started avoiding friends, family and activities that used to bring me joy?  

If you answered yes to any or many of these questions, it might be a sign that you should seek help.

How to Treat Dual Diagnosis

Although dual diagnosis has been hard to identify in the past, there is a growing awareness of it in the mental health community and new, interwoven treatment methods are available to help people recover from substance abuse and mental health disorders. Because there can be many contributing factors that contribute to comorbidity, the methods of approaching treatment are also often multi-tiered. Psychotherapy, and medication are useful tactics to address issues dealing with dual diagnosis, as is cognitive behavioral therapy. Support groups, have been invaluable in helping those who suffer with addiction and mental health disorders to better understand their illness or addiction, and how to treat it. Programs such as those offered through New Origins are focused on helping patients manage life skills and respond to triggers and stressors in order to address their issues and live rich, fulfilling lives. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder, a substance abuse issue, or both, talking with a mental health provider will help determine your best path towards managing it and bettering your life. 

New Origins is Here to Assist You with Your Mental Health and Lasting Recovery.

New Origins is Here to Assist You with Your Mental Health and Lasting Recovery.