Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Understanding Dual Diagnosis

Those who suffer from both a substance abuse disorder and mental health condition(s) have what is called a dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorder. It is quite common for people struggling with drug or alcohol dependency to also have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or another mental health condition. In fact, there are even some situations where the undiagnosed mental health condition may have led to substance abuse. This is not always the case, but it is quite common. Understanding dual diagnosis and how to find the right resources can make all the difference in successful treatment and recovery. 


The Relationship Between Mental Health and Substance Abuse

With a co-occurring disorder, both the addiction and the mental health disorder cause a variety of their own symptoms that can interfere with daily life and functioning. These conditions can affect a person’s abilities at work, reduce their ability to maintain healthy relationships at home, and even just make it difficult to handle life in general. When mental health conditions are incorrectly diagnosed or left untreated, substance abuse generally gets worse. The increased drug or alcohol abuse will lead to an increase in the symptoms or issues related to the mental health disorder, creating a vicious cycle that can be hard to break. 


The other thing these two disorders have in common is their stigma. Although there is an increasing public awareness of mental health disorders and addiction, it is still something a lot of people don’t talk about. Therefore, it is natural for many suffering from these conditions to feel shame or guilt, and doubly so if they have a dual diagnosis. This can make it difficult to seek help. However, as many as 50% of those with a severe mental health condition also struggle with substance abuse, so no one has to feel like they are alone. 


Which Comes First?

Although there is a close link between substance abuse and mental health disorders, neither directly causes the other. Instead, what tends to happen is that alcohol or drugs exacerbate the symptoms or are used as a means of self-medication. It takes a trained professional to diagnose a co-occurring disorder, and the treatment requires an integrated approach that addresses both the substance abuse and the mental health condition.