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Dual Diagnosis Treatment

The recovery process for people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse disorder is commonly referred to as dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis recovery programs are specifically designed to cater to the complications that arise from both mental health disorders and substance abuse disorder.

Addiction treatment is typically run along with the same guidelines; however, there might be a few different therapy techniques used for treating symptoms of specific mental health disorders. Determining if you or someone you know is struggling with a dual diagnosis can be challenging, but there are a variety of signs to look for.

Withdrawal symptoms and discrepancies in behavior are a large indicator of dual diagnosis. Also, isolation from family and friends, irrational thinking, higher tolerance, and using more of a substance can be a sign you or someone you know is struggling with a co-occurring disorder.

What is Dual Diagnosis?

Mental health disorders are characterized by any negative changes that affect mood, thought, or behavior. When a mental illness occurs at the same time as a substance use disorder (SUD), it’s clinically referred to as dual diagnosis.

Common mental health disorders that are sometimes related to SUDs consist of:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder

Studies indicate that about 8.1 million people in 2015 had co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. Substance abuse and mental illness coincide with each other—whether or not the mental illness was in effect prior to experiencing substance abuse issues. Self-medication for undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illness is a common factor in why people with mental illness choose to use drugs or alcohol. Also, people who abuse drugs or alcohol can develop a mental illness.

In both instances, people can be treated effectively. There are a number of effective methods used to treat dual diagnosis patients due to the similarities in symptoms.

Symptoms of mental health issues are:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Appetite changes
  • Increase in energy
  • Erratic behavior
  • Racing thoughts
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Excessive tension
  • Restlessness
  • Impaired decision-making skills
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Inability to focus
  • Inability to experience feelings of pleasure

In conjunction with these behaviors are several physical effects due to drugs or alcohol. Most of the psychological symptoms mirror each other, causing the symptoms to be more severe.


There is a high rate of compromised mental health and substance use disorders. It has been well-documented over years of research on the topic of self-medication as a result of co-occurring disorders. According to a study from 1996, 51 percent of those met criteria for a mental disorder at some point. Individuals in the vast majority of those cases reported that their mental disorder preceded the substance disorder. Once the underlying causes of co-occurrence are known, treatment can improve mental health and substance use problems.

Those who struggle with mental illness abuse drugs for the same reasons that are familiar to those who don’t struggle with their mental health. Individuals often enjoy the sedative effects that alcohol brings. Those with mental illness may use the substance to help them cope with their discomfort. The type of treatment may be complicated for outsiders to understand, but it’s something that occurs on a very high level.

Many of those with mental illness have never been formally diagnosed and are not receiving the kind of care that can help them get better. Some are dealing with severe pain and looking for an outlet, so they feel drugs will help them get through the day.

A study released in the journal Health Services Research noted that the amount of drugs an individual takes on a daily basis could be tied to the number of times someone sees a doctor. Self-medication indicates people in need are getting help, just not in the right places.

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Getting a Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis was first identified in the 1980s, and more research into the topic has yielded better practices for determining if the individual is struggling and how to treat them.

To receive a dual diagnosis, a person must meet specific criteria for a mental health disorder. This is defined by the current version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM, a guideline for mental health professionals to diagnose and treat clients in a variety of settings is commonly utilized for diagnosing a patient.

Someone that is diagnosed may find relief if they’ve lived with an undiagnosed mental illness for an extended period. To finally have an answer to the hopelessness and severe mood swings that are fueling drug addiction can initiate the treatment process and start the road to recovery.

What Is Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Substance abuse treatment centers that specialize in dual diagnosis are both similar and different than the traditional rehabilitation program. The initial goal of a dual diagnosis treatment program is to help the individual safely withdrawal from drugs or alcohol and then immediately improve their state of mind.

Typically, you might be pre-diagnosed with a mental health disorder —making it easier to find the right medication that treats your condition. If not, the facility might run a couple of tests to make sure they accurately diagnose you and provide you with the correct medication.

Professionals use a unique and effective approach when determining how they will diagnose and treat each individual. A treatment plan and the objectives of it stay are based solely on the individual and specifics of their situation.

Typically, you should expect to address personal obstacles, as well as feelings, emotions, and difficulties. Also, specialists that treat substance abuse and mental illness will be focusing on both issues simultaneously. The approach might be intense, but both diseases are severe and require immediate, in-depth attention in order to sustain recovery.

How to Treat Dual Diagnosis

People who suffer from dual diagnosis symptoms are typically undergoing an enormous amount of mental and physical stress. Treatment for individuals suffering from dual diagnosis can benefit you in a number of ways.

A patient talking with a therapist about dual diagnosis

Specifically, dual diagnosis treatment revolves around targeting the main psychological setbacks and treating them effectively. Therapy and medication, if necessary, are used during this process. The substance abuse aspect of treatment can be addressed during counseling sessions, but the physical aspect will be targeted during a detox program.

Since the psychological symptoms of substance abuse disorders and mental health disorders are similar, they can be treated simultaneously using a wide variety of proven methods. Benefits of dual diagnosis treatment programs consist of the following:

Support Network

Professionals, clinical staff, peers undergoing similar situations, and the support of family and friends can help individuals stay on the path to recovery. Working with trusted people can help individuals with dual diagnosis feel encouraged and motivated to continue with extended care.

Understanding Addiction

Understanding the root of addiction is complex, but it is vital to being able to support yourself and gain support from others. Entering a dual diagnosis treatment center gives you time away from negative situations and surrounds you with experienced professionals who will do everything to help you regain control of your life.

Mental Health Education

Learning about mental illness and how to effectively cope with it is one of the most important benefits. If you were self-medicating a mental illness, you would learn how to live life without the use of drugs or alcohol, while treating your mental illness with medications or other coping mechanisms.

Proper Diagnosis and Medication

When you receive the proper diagnosis, you do not have to worry or wonder how the symptoms will subside. Having a correct diagnosis is one of the most important benefits of entering a treatment center that specializes in dual diagnosis. You will have the answers to your underlying issues and access to treatment that will work for you.

What’s Different About Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Dual diagnosis treatment is specifically designed to tend to the needs of those in need of psychiatric help. Clinicians who work in addiction treatment will receive specialized training and credentials to treat co-occurring mental health disorders.

To ensure a client receives a full recovery, they must have parallel treatment of a mental health disorder and substance use disorder by the members of the trained treatment team.

A supportive approach to therapy will help reinforce self-esteem and build self-confidence instead of confronting the client with negative, aggressive statements. The point is never to let the client feel shame. While this is not much different than standard therapy, there are additional guidelines the clinicians abide by.


SAMHSA. (2016). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved March, 2018 from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Common Physical and Mental Health Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders. Retrieved March, 2018 from

McGovern, M. P., Lambert-Harris, C., Gotham, H. J., Claus, R. E., & Xie, H. (2014, March). Dual diagnosis capability in mental health and addiction treatment services: An assessment of programs across multiple state systems. Retrieved from

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). (n.d.). Retrieved from

Hryb, K., Kirkhart, R., & Talbert, R. (n.d.). A call for standardized definition of dual diagnosis. Retrieved from

Harris, K. M., & Edlund, M. J. (2005, February). Self-medication of mental health problems: New evidence from a national survey. Retrieved from

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