How a Mental Health Issue Can Lead to a Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorder, or Vice Versa
Anyone who has suffered through a bout of depression, survived an acute trauma, or has struggled with extreme mood swings or anxiety can easily grasp why there is a desire to escape that emotional pain. Whether subduing chronic anxiety, insomnia, or feelings of hopelessness and despair, seeking relief through the numbing effects of a substance is an extremely common response.
When the self-medicating substance becomes unmanageable, layering addiction or chemical dependency over an existing mental health disorder, the situation becomes more serious. Ironically, alcohol or drug misuse only exacerbates the symptoms of the original mental health condition instead of masking them. The resulting co-occurring disorders leaves individuals with mounting negative life consequences and deteriorating mental and physical health.
There is help for individuals struggling with co-occurring disorders. Finding a dual diagnosis recovery program that is equipped to treat both disorders simultaneously is the first step at overcoming this challenge.
What is Comorbidity?
When someone is struggling with a substance use disorder and a coexisting mental health disorder, it is termed comorbidity. The word comorbid is used interchangeably with co-occurring or dual diagnosis. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 8 million Americans struggle with addiction and a comorbid mental health challenge. In essence, about 25% of individuals with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder.
When you consider the connection between mental health disorders and substance misuse the first question many will have is which problem originated first? There are two scenarios in which a dual diagnosis can develop:
- The mental health disorder emerges first. Someone who is struggling with a mental health disorder, such as depression, an anxiety disorder, trauma recovery, or bipolar disorder, may lean on drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the unpleasant emotional state they are experiencing. Over time tolerance to the substance increases and the individual increases consumption, which then evolves into a secondary, or comorbid, substance use disorder.
- The substance use disorder emerges first. Someone who becomes addicted to or chemically dependent upon a substance may eventually experience any number of negative consequences directly related to the substance use disorder. As these consequences take their toll, the individual may begin to develop symptoms of depression or anxiety in response to the added stress the addiction has caused.
Regardless of the order the two disorders occur, the result is the same: untreated substance misuse will worsen the symptoms of the comorbid mental health disorder, and untreated mental health disorders will worsen a substance use disorder.
Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
It is essential to seek help for comorbid disorders at a residential recovery program that specializes in treating a dual diagnosis. These programs are equipped with a clinical staff that includes the psychiatric expertise necessary to prescribe medication, design a customized treatment plan for co-occurring disorders, and to effectively manage the unique mental health challenges that may emerge in the treatment setting.
Successful treatment outcomes for individuals with co-occurring disorders rely on both the mental health disorder and the substance use disorder being addressed and treated at the same time. Comprehensive treatment will include the following:
- Withdrawal management. If necessary, the treatment process will begin with a medically monitored detox phase. During detox and withdrawal medical interventions will be provided to minimize discomfort.
- Medication. In most cases, the existing mental health disorder will necessitate medication to help stabilize the individual’s symptoms. Existing medications will be reviewed and adjusted as needed. Medication Supported Recovery (MSR) may also be utilized to assist with the addiction recovery.
- Psychotherapy. Therapy is a core treatment element for individuals in recovery for co-occurring disorders. Evidence-based therapies utilized include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy.
- Group support. Peer support is an essential aspect of dual diagnosis treatment. Group therapy groups led by a clinician, recovery meetings, such as A.A. or the Double Trouble offshoot that was created for individuals with a dual diagnosis, and family-focused groups can all be rich sources of support.
- Education. Individuals will learn about the physiology of how a substance use disorder can develop, as well as design a personal relapse prevention plan. Coping skills are taught for managing stress or triggers in recovery.
- Holistic therapies. Individuals with co-occurring disorders benefit from being introduced to holistic activities that can help them regulate stress and anxiety, and induce relaxation. These might include art therapy, yoga, mindfulness, deep-breathing techniques, and meditation.
When co-occurring disorders, or comorbidity, are present, recovery efforts are going to focus on both maintaining sobriety and learning how to manage the mental health challenge. This can be achieved by making fundamental changes in thought patterns, reducing stress, and participating in ongoing continuing care services.
Ashley Addiction Treatment is a comprehensive inpatient treatment center for individuals struggling with a dual diagnosis. For more information about our program, please reach out to our Intake Department today at (866) 313-6307.