Dual Diagnosis Treatment: What Is It & Why Is It Important?

Just as there are numerous forms of addiction, there are many forms of addiction treatment, and each type of treatment has been designed to meet a specific set of needs. For instance, outpatient addiction treatment programs offer a less intensive rehabilitative curriculum for patients who require flexibility in their treatment schedules. With a dual diagnosis treatment program, the curriculum has been designed to meet the needs of patients who suffer from addiction as well as co-occurring or secondary diagnosis.


But what is a dual diagnosis? And why is it so important for someone suffering from addiction and a secondary mental health problem to receive dual diagnosis treatment?


What is a Dual Diagnosis?

When it comes to the causes and sources of substance abuse problems, decades of research have shown us that there are many ways for an individual to develop an addiction. For some, addiction develops largely as a result of one’s environment; in particular, it’s quite common for individuals who were exposed to alcohol and/or drug abuse in adolescence to begin experimenting with substance abuse as they become older. Alternately, some people begin to experiment with alcohol and drug abuse out of sheer curiosity. But it’s also very common for addiction to develop in individuals who suffer from pre-existing disorders and afflictions. These individuals are known as dual diagnosis patients.


So what, exactly, is a dual diagnosis? In the briefest terms, a dual diagnosis refers to someone who suffers from both an alcohol/drug addiction as well as a secondary co-occurring (or “comorbid”) disorder. While the secondary affliction can be a wide variety of different health conditions, many individuals with dual diagnoses are suffering from a co-occurring mental health disorder. In fact, it’s currently estimated that approximately 45 percent of all individuals suffering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs also suffer from some type of comorbid mental health disorder.


A common example of a dual diagnosis would be a patient who suffers from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. For such a patient, a possible explanation might be that the experience of trauma in the individual’s past led him or her to use alcohol as a means of alleviating the lingering psychological and emotional effects of that trauma; over time, the continued use of — an eventual reliance on — alcohol would result in physiological dependence or addiction.


Additionally, numerous individuals suffering from panic disorder and similar anxiety-related problems have developed substance abuse problems after attempting to use mind-altering substances to self-medicate. With anxiety, it’s not usually a single past experience that triggers the emotional discomfort. Instead, the anxiety may occur randomly and seemingly without provocation. If the individual hasn’t sought treatment for the anxiety, he or she may find that using alcohol or drugs is the only means of getting relief from his or her anxiety.


There are numerous other mental health conditions with high incidences of addiction comorbidity. For example, most mood disorders — e.g., depression, bipolar disorder — are common among individuals with substance abuse problems.


Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Addiction

In the simplest of terms, dual diagnosis addiction treatment refers to a type of addiction treatment curriculum in which patients receive treatments for both addictions as well as their comorbid mental or emotional disorders. In other words, dual-diagnosis treatment incorporates treatment for both addiction and the additional, secondary illness.


Like other forms of treatment, dual diagnosis programs can be both inpatient or outpatient, but the former is usually encouraged since it’s the most effective and provides dual diagnosis patients with the most care for their needs. Since a dual diagnosis patient’s addiction is almost always connected to the mental or emotional disorder in some way, dual-diagnosis treatment has two main goals: helping a patient to overcome alcohol or drug addiction and helping the individual to manage the mental or emotional disorder so that the severity of symptoms of that disorder is unlikely to provoke a relapse.


Most clinical addiction treatment programs have a foundation of psychotherapy and counseling. In part, the goal of psychotherapy for addiction is to help a patient uncover some of the causal or contributing factors of the substance abuse problem while also imparting strategies for overcoming those factors so as to minimize the potential for relapse in the future. While dual-diagnosis treatment likewise has a foundation of psychotherapy and counseling, this type of program is unique in that it must also treat the secondary or co-occurring disorder. Therefore, if a dual diagnosis patient suffers from comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder, the counseling would attempt to identify the root of the individual’s addiction while also helping the individual to cope with the source of his or her trauma. For addicted patients suffering from depression, the counseling would focus on helping the individual to return to a state of emotional balance; in some cases, it might be necessary for the patient to begin taking antidepressant medications, which will prevent the individual from feeling the need to self-medicate.


Why is Dual Diagnosis Treatment Important?

As stated above, a dual diagnosis refers to when an individual suffers from a secondary mental or emotional disorder while also suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction. For such individuals, success in recovery is dependent on receiving adequate treatment for both the addiction and the co-occurring mental disorder.


The reason why dual-diagnosis treatment is so important is that there is usually some type of correlation between the two conditions; if one illness becomes worse, the other is likely to become worse, too. In theory, this would make it extremely difficult for a dual diagnosis patient to receive treatment for addiction; while the individual might overcome the substance abuse problem over the course of treatment, the fact that he or she would be returning home while still having to deal with symptoms of a mental or emotional disorder would make it extremely unlikely that he or she would be able to sustain his or her newfound sobriety.

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