The Big Role of Mental Health in Addiction & Recovery

Taking the time to reach out for support for substance abuse can be a brave first step toward a new life. However, what few individuals with substance use disorders may know is that it’s also quite common to be dealing with an underlying and potentially overlooked mental health disorder as well. Getting the proper treatment for both can significantly improve your chances of success as you work toward a happier, substance-free life. But how do you treat co-occurring disorders, how might they impact you, and which disorders are frequently seen alongside substance use disorder?

Let’s take a closer look at the role of mental health in addiction and recovery as you work toward a better quality of life.

Man struggling with co-occurring addiction and mental health problems looks sad with hands on head, resting elbows on table as he stares at a spilled pill bottle of drugs.

What is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

A dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder refers specifically to individuals who have both a mental health disorder (one or more) and a substance use disorder. This can be problematic for several reasons. No matter which appeared first, one can exacerbate the symptoms of the other, leaving some feeling as though they’re trapped in an endless cycle of mental illness and substance abuse. As you’ll discover, however, there is both hope and help out there so that you can effectively address the symptoms of each.

Are Co-Occurring Disorders Uncommon?

The stigma of mental health and substance use disorders may leave some feeling like they’re alone in their experiences. But is this true? Surprisingly not. According to research conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, there are approximately 20.3 million American adults with substance use disorders and 42.1 million American adults with mental illnesses. Out of the former, 37.9% also had a mental illness, and out of the latter, 18.2% had substance use disorders. This means that 7.7 million Americans or more have co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders. 

Receiving a dual diagnosis is not something to fear. Rather, such a diagnosis can help you receive greater insight into what might trigger you to use substances and help you receive the comprehensive support that you need to navigate the future with greater ease.

A woman speaks with a Medical Doctor at a treatment facility to receive an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment for her co-occurring disorders.

The Causes of Co-Occurring Disorders

There are often three reasons why co-occurring disorders develop. These include: 

  1. There are common risk factors that contribute to the development of both mental illness and substance abuse. For example, those who might receive a dual diagnosis include people who have experienced trauma, those for which substance abuse or mental illness runs in the family, or those who face chronic stress. 
  2. The symptoms of mental illness encouraged someone to self-medicate. Some may turn to substances as a means to cope with the symptoms of a mental illness. It might make them feel numb, happy, or carefree. Unfortunately, the physical and mental repercussions of using substances often only further worsen your current state, contributing to greater use and leaving you with another disorder to address. This is something we might see in those who have an addictive personality, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 
  3. Substance abuse contributed to the development of a mental illness. Some drugs have the ability to change the structure of the brain and impact functionality. Should this happen, it could result in the development of a mental health disorder. Those who follow this path may then feel more encouraged to use substances to deal with the symptoms of the mental illness or simply to satisfy the changes in the brain that have developed.

Dual Diagnoses Are Not All The Same.

While data shows that there’s high comorbidity with substance use disorders and anxiety disorders (like PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and more), there are numerous other mental health disorders that may be paired alongside substance abuse. These include: 

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Dissociative disorders
  • ADHD
  • And more

Put simply, those who have substance use disorder might experience any of the above disorders as well, regardless of which came first or whether both developed because they had all of the common risk factors that led to them developing both. No matter your dual diagnosis, there is support out there.

Two friends laugh together as a group of guys watch TV together while living together as roommates in Sober Living.

How Are Co-Occurring Disorders Treated?

If you are someone with a dual diagnosis, it’s critical to remember that co-occurring disorders do not impact your ability to get help. While dealing with two disorders at once might present further challenges, you can work to address both successfully and get the treatment you need to thrive. So, how are dual diagnoses treated?

A dual diagnosis is often treated through behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of both. Some therapy techniques employed to help individuals navigate both substance use disorders and mental health disorders include:

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to leverage mindfulness and acceptance to help those with substance use disorders and mental health disorders cultivate greater awareness of their mental state, emotional regulation, and how they interact with others. 
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Cognitive behavior therapy is one of the most popular forms of talk therapy. This type of therapy is designed to help those with substance use disorders and mental health disorders identify negative thinking patterns and change their behaviors for greater success in the future. 
  • Therapeutic Communities: Recovering from substance abuse and overcoming mental health disorders is rarely an isolated journey. Having a support system is crucial. Therapeutic communities offer long-term residential and outpatient treatment. This helps people get the right support in a group or one-on-one setting as they work to improve their habits, behaviors, and other aspects of their lives. 
  • Assertive Community Treatment: In some cases, those with co-occurring disorders might receive assertive community treatment. Assertive community treatment focuses on providing the individual in question with the treatment they need while also emphasizing community outreach.
A young adult thinks deeply during a session with her therapist while receiving treatment and help with her addiction and PTSD.

In regard to medical treatment, this may apply to two areas of dealing with substance use disorders. Certain medications may be provided in order to help those with substance abuse navigate the withdrawals and subsequent sobriety. These types of medications might include those designed to address opioid addiction, alcoholism, and other drug use. However, those with co-occurring disorders might also receive medications to help them address the symptoms of their mental health disorder. 

No matter which combination of mental health disorders and substances you abuse, there is treatment support out there to help you navigate your unique combination of symptoms. That being said, where do you begin your treatment journey? Which organization is best equipped to handle your needs?

Research has shown that integrated treatment for both substance abuse and mental health issues has been proven to be consistently more effective in comparison to a separate treatment of each diagnosis. Source: National Institutes on Drug Abuse

This means that individuals suffering from co-occurring disorders will likely benefit from choosing a treatment facility or plan that is able to treat both addiction and mental illness in an integrated manner.

Start Your Journey With 12 South Recovery

12 South Recovery offers mental health treatment and addiction treatment for those with a dual diagnosis. From our partial hospital program to our intensive outpatient program and beyond, we’re equipped with the experience needed to help you navigate your symptoms, learn the coping skills necessary to work toward a better quality of life, and gradually acclimate you to daily life and society. With several therapeutic approaches, we create a personally tailored treatment plan for your specific needs.

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