Dual Diagnosis or Co-occurring Disorders

A person who has both an alcohol or drug problem and an emotional/psychiatric problem is said to have a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. To recover fully, the person needs treatment for both problems.

Dual diagnosis is more common than you might imagine. According to a report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 37 percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness. Of all people diagnosed with a mental illness, 29 percent are also reported to abuse either alcohol or drugs.

The following psychiatric problems are common to occur with individuals having a dual diagnosis:

Often an individual develops a psychiatric problem first. In an attempt to feel calmer, peppier, or more cheerful, a person with emotional symptoms may drink or use drugs. Doctors call this “self-medication.” Frequent self-medication may eventually lead to physical or psychological dependency on alcohol or drugs. If it does, the person then suffers from not just one problem, but two. In adolescents, however, drug or alcohol abuse may merge and continue into adulthood, which may contribute to the development of emotional difficulties or psychiatric disorders.

In other cases, alcohol or drug dependency is the primary condition. A person whose substance abuse problem has become severe may develop symptoms of a psychiatric disorder such as episodes of depression, fits of rage, hallucinations, or suicide attempts.

At an initial examination it may be difficult for a physician to tell if a person’s primary problem is substance abuse or an emotional disorder. Since many symptoms of severe substance abuse mimic other psychiatric conditions, the person must go through a withdrawal from alcohol and/or drugs before the physician can accurately assess whether there’s an underlying psychiatric problem also.

If a person does have both an alcohol/drug problem and an emotional problem, both problems should ideally be treated simultaneously. For any person with a substance abuse problem, however, the first step in treatment must be detoxification, a period of time during which the body is allowed to cleanse itself of alcohol or drugs. Ideally, detoxification should take place under medical supervision. It can take a few days to a week or more, depending on what substances the person abused and for how long.

Until recently, alcoholics and drug addicts dreaded detoxification because it meant a painful and sometimes life-threatening “cold turkey” withdrawal. Now, doctors are able to give hospitalized substance abusers carefully chosen medications which can substantially ease withdrawal symptoms. Thus, when detoxification is done under medical supervision, it’s safer and less traumatic. Once detoxification is completed, it’s time for dual treatment; rehabilitation for the alcohol or drug problem and treatment for the psychiatric problem.

Rehabilitation for a substance abuse problem usually involves individual and group psychotherapy, education about alcohol and drugs, exercise, proper nutrition, and participation in a 12-step recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is not just to stay off alcohol and drugs, but to learn to enjoy life without these “crutches.”

Treatment for a psychiatric problem depends upon the diagnosis. For most disorders, individual and group therapy as well as medications are recommended. Expressive therapies and education about the particular psychiatric condition are often useful adjuncts. A support group of other people who are recovering from the same condition may also prove highly beneficial. Adjunct treatment, such as occupational or expressive therapy, can help individuals better understand and communicate their feelings or develop better problem-solving or decision-making skills.

Individuals with a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder need not necessarily to be treated in a hospital. The nature and severity of the illness, the associated risks or complications, and the person’s treatment history are some of the facts considered in determining the appropriate level of care. There are several different levels or intensities of care including full hospitalization or inpatient treatment, partial hospitalization, and outpatient treatment.

With both rehabilitation for substance abuse and treatment for a psychiatric problem, education, counseling sessions, and support groups for the patient’s family are important aspects of overall care. The greater the family’s understanding of the problems, the higher the chances the patient will have a lasting recovery. 

Family and friends can help an individual seeking recovery from substance abuse by not enabling the person. Enabling is acting in ways that essentially help or encourage the person to maintain their habit of drinking or getting high. For instance, a woman whose husband routinely drinks too much might call in sick for him when he is too drunk to go to work. That’s enabling. Likewise, family members or friends might give an addict money which is used to buy drugs, because they’re either sorry for him or afraid of him. That’s enabling also. When family and friends participate in the recovery program, they learn how to stop enabling. If they act on what they’ve learned, the recovering substance abuser is much less likely to relapse into drinking or taking drugs.

When helping a loved one recover from a psychiatric condition family and friends should be calm and understanding, rather than frightened or critical. They should be warm and open, rather than cool or cautious. Although it is fine to ask the person matter-of-factly about the psychiatric treatment, that shouldn’t be the only focus of conversation.

If someone you know appears to have a substance abuse problem or symptoms of a psychiatric disorder encourage the person to acknowledge the problems and seek help for themselves. Suggest a professional evaluation with a licensed physician, preferably at a medical center that’s equipped to treat addiction problems and psychiatric conditions. If the person is reluctant to do the legwork themselves assist them in finding a facility and making the appointment. Offer to go with the person; a little encouragement may be all it takes. If you talk to the physician first, be honest and candid about the troubling behavior. Your input may give the doctor valuable diagnostic clues.

As a relative or friend, you can play an important role in encouraging a person to seek professional diagnosis and treatment. By learning about dual diagnosis, you can help this person find and stick with an effective recovery program. The more you know about dual diagnosis, the more you will see how substance abuse can go hand-in-hand with another psychiatric condition. As with any illness, a person with dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders can improve once proper care is given. By seeking out information, you can learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of dual diagnosis – and help someone live a healthier or more fulfilling life.

Source: Mental Health America