Dual diagnosis: Dealing with mental health and substance abuse

Co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis is the term used when someone is suffering from both substance abuse and a mental illness, typically depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. One problem makes the other more difficult and the struggle becomes harder. Although both issues have different symptoms, some of them can overlap, making it difficult to discern what is what.

Image courtesy of Brandon Giesbrecht via Flickr

Image courtesy of Brandon Giesbrecht via Flickr

Both health issues will hinder your ability to run a normal life and to connect with the people around you. Everyday tasks become difficult and the situation is only made worse by the way in which the disorders interact with one another. What is left is a vicious cycle. When the level of substance abuse increases, so does the ferocity of the mental health issue. If the mental health issue goes untreated, the substance abuse worsens.

Although there isn’t always a direct link between the two, millions of people all over the world suffer from either substance addiction or mental health issues. In fact, according to the ‘2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings’ by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in America alone, 43.7 million adults aged 18 or over were dealing with a mental health issue. Of those 43.7 million adults, 8.4 million adults met the criteria for a substance disorder.

Symptoms of one can worsen symptoms of the other. Moreover, those prescribed with anti-depressants or mood stabilisers may find them to be severely less effective with the interference of alcohol and illicit drugs.

Quite often symptoms of drug abuse coincide with symptoms of mental health illnesses. For example, some illicit drugs share symptoms with depressions; appetite changes, lack of concentration and disturbed sleep patterns. Some have similar symptoms as anxiety such as feeling restless, nausea and dizziness and difficulty breathing. Similarly, the symptoms of bi-polar and drug abuse are similar; increased energy, hyperactivity and sudden outbursts of anger.

Therefore, diagnosing one or the other or even both can be difficult. What came first; the mental illness or the drug abuse? Are the symptoms the same? There are several things that can be done to make the deciphering easier. One thing to always consider is family history. Genetics does have a role although its influence varies from family to family. If somebody in your family has suffered from mental disorders of substance abuse in the past, there is a higher chance that it will be passed on down the family.

Either way, there is a link between the two although not everybody necessarily suffers from both. The difficulties in dealing with a mental health issue can tempt the sufferer to indulge in illicit substances to help deal with it or to distract them from what they are experiencing. These substances could in turn intensify the metal health issue to a point where there are psychotic tendencies. In some cases, withdrawal can trigger mental health problems.

The first step is recognising denial about any of the issues. Denial is an inherent part of substance abuse and can also occur with those dealing with mental disorders. Fighting the shame and admitting you have a problem is the first step in recover, regardless of how long it takes.

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