Did you know that people who develop drug addiction are more than twice as likely to also have a co-occurring mental health disorder? Addiction, when it occurs alongside another disorder or illness, is called co-morbidity or dual diagnosis. Unfortunately, substance abuse often makes these problems worse, resulting in a more complex and longer recovery.
Which Came First?
Even though mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and bipolar often co-occur alongside substance abuse, one does not necessarily cause the other. The trick for addiction and mental health professionals is to determine whether a person’s mental health disorder symptoms are a true dual diagnosis versus the effects of withdrawal. For example, an individual who is addicted to cocaine might suffer from anxiety and depression for the first several months of sobriety. To the recovering person, those symptoms feel the same, regardless of the cause — but avoiding relapse can depend on treating the co-morbid mental health disorder.
Cocaine isn’t alone in worsening mental health disorders. Even drugs such as marijuana — considered by many a milder drug — negatively affects schizophrenia, a serious mental health disorder often requiring years of intensive therapy and treatment. Perhaps worst of all, benzodiazepines — commonly prescribed to treat anxiety — can actually make the original mental health disorder symptoms worse when abused.
Addiction professionals theorize that people with untreated or undiagnosed mental health disorders unknowingly self-medicate those conditions with drugs and alcohol. The temporary relief they feel after consuming mind-altering substances provides an equally short-lived respite from the mental exhaustion these co-morbid disorders cause. Those who are biologically, environmentally or developmentally vulnerable to addiction and mental illness are more likely to develop a co-morbid condition themselves. Genetics, stress, abuse, early reliance on substances, social influences and poor parenting all increase the chances of co-morbidity.
Treating Dual Diagnosis
Evaluating both the addiction and the co-occurring mental health disorder is necessary to provide a comprehensive solution for this complex problem. Behavioral therapies, addiction counseling, 12-step care and evidence-based treatments all demonstrate effectiveness during long term recovery. Although more study is needed, addressing the whole person — instead of simply the physical aspects of addiction — appear to show the greatest promise in treating the most serious dual diagnosis cases.