No one sets out to become an alcoholic or addict. Addiction is something that creeps up on people. One’s substance use may seem under control. Then others start to suggest that maybe it’s gone too far. And then finally the user realizes that they can’t stop, even though they want to.
Or, perhaps the person doesn’t want to stop because they know their substance of choice is serving an important purpose. And even though they may hate being dependent on a substance, they still can’t live without it.
For people who suffer from emotional trauma or mental health conditions like depression or bipolar disorder, it’s not as a simple as deciding to quit. When drugs or alcohol provide important relief, there has to be something better to replace them with.
This is why it’s critical to identify and treat addiction and co-occurring disorders simultaneously. If only the addiction is treated, but not the circumstances that caused addiction, then relapse is highly likely.
What Is Dual Diagnosis and Co-Occurring Disorders?
Dual diagnosis is when a person is found to have two medical conditions. In the case of addiction, dual diagnosis is when a person who is addicted to a substance is also found to have an underlying mental condition. The separate condition is also referred to as a co-occurring disorder.
Roughly 50 percent of people in the U.S. who have an addiction problem also have a mental health disorder. The number of co-occurring disorders among addiction patients is vast, but the most common conditions that co-occur with addiction are:
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
The Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Disorders
The mental condition may be what leads to substance abuse, but sometimes the substance use can amplify the signs of a co-occurring mental disorder. Some individuals who did not show signs of mental illness before abusing drugs or alcohol can later show symptoms of a mental disorder. This can be due to changes in body chemistry caused by the substances, or because addiction often leads to traumatic experiences that produce mental or emotional imbalance.
Trauma and Addiction
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental condition caused by severe trauma. This trauma may have occurred in a single event, or over an extended period of time due to repeated exposure to traumatic stimuli.
Common causes of trauma and PTSD include:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- War, violence, terrorism
- Natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.
- Sports injuries
- Auto accidents
- Betrayal and loss
Whether a person has been officially diagnosed with PTSD or not, many people who have experienced trauma turn to substances to manage their symptoms which can include:
- Physical symptoms such as dizziness or hallucinations
Prescription Medication and Addiction
Patients frequently become addicted to prescription drugs that are prescribed for mental health reasons such as anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar disorder.
The most common example of this is benzodiazepines, a class of drugs normally used to relieve anxiety. Common brand names include Valium, Xanax and Klonopin.
Benzos are some of the most frequently prescribed drugs in America, because they are used not only by people with anxiety disorders, but also as a calming sedative for insomnia or stress relief. It’s easy for casual benzo use to turn into addiction over time. Even those who are using the drug correctly can become addicted. It’s important to take this medication only as prescribed and not for a prolonged period of time.
How Addiction Impacts the Brain
Mental disorders are all caused by improper brain function. Because addictive substances also impact how the brain works, it’s easy to see how addiction can make mental conditions worse, and why those with mental illnesses often self-medicate with substances to alter how they feel.
Drugs and alcohol use can alter brain chemistry by:
- Over-stimulating the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is tied to pleasure and which leads to a “high” feeling
- Interfering with normal neurotransmitter functioning, such as when drug chemicals mimic natural neurotransmitters, blocking or stimulating certain processes in the brain
Those who struggle with mental disorders or trauma often turn to substances to:
- Feel pleasure, especially to alleviate suffering
- Experience a sense of power and invulnerability
- Relieve extreme emotions and replace them with a feeling of calm
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting these effects, the price for them is very high when addictive substances are the solution. This is why the right kind of treatment is so critical in dual diagnosis cases. Proper treatment provides healthy alternatives to experience the relief and empowerment people need.
Healthy alternatives that help someone experience pleasure, feel a sense of power and achieve emotional balance include:
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Exercise – which provides a natural endorphin boost
- Hobbies and outdoor adventures
- A nutrient-rich, enjoyable diet
Mental Illness Impacts the Whole Family
While the focus of treatment is on the person with the co-occurring disorder, it’s important to also recognize that parents, spouses and siblings can be greatly impacted by mental illness and addiction within the family. Caring for someone who is suffering from a mental disorder, and addiction as well, can be highly stressful and even traumatic for family members.
Children are especially vulnerable because they’re not yet capable of fully understanding what is going on and why their parent is acting the way they are. Even when addicted parents do their best to hide their problems, children are intuitive enough to pick up that something is wrong, but not yet wise enough to know how to deal with it.
For these reasons, it’s important for family members to seek out and accept mental and emotional support for themselves from compassionate counselors who understand the complexities of addiction and mental health issues.
What Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Should Involve
Because addiction and mental disorders can exacerbate each other, failing to treat both disorders at the same time puts the client at greater risk for relapse. Therefore, it’s critical that addiction and co-occurring disorders be treated simultaneously by experts in both fields.
During the intake process, it’s important that a rehab center perform a full psychological evaluation on all incoming patients to see if there is an accompanying mental disorder along with the substance addiction problem. This will significantly impact the specific course of treatment for the client.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment at The Dunes
At The Dunes East Hampton, whether the client has shown signs of a mental illness before or after abusing substances, we perform a comprehensive evaluation and create an individualized treatment plan. The client’s unique treatment plan will include proven clinical and holistic treatment techniques that will address both the addiction and the specific mental disorder present.
Having a mental disorder may make one more susceptible to addiction, but the situation is far from a lost cause. With the right help from empowering, compassionate professionals, surrounded by comfort and luxury, you or your loved one can get co-occurring disorders under control.