What Is Dual Diagnosis?

By Barb Nefer

  • Overview

    What Is Dual Diagnosis?
    The term "dual diagnosis" may sound confusing, but it simply means that someone has a mental illness along with a substance abuse issue. By giving this set of conditions a label, mental health professionals can classify and discuss it more easily, in order to to give appropriate treatment to affected clients.
  • Features

    The features of "dual diagnosis" are two conditions that exist simultaneously in a person. One of the conditions is a mental illness, while the other is a substance abuse problem. The mental illness can be anything from a mild condition such as depression to a more serious affliction such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The substance being abused can be alcohol or any type of drug, including prescription medications or illegal substances.
  • Causes

    Although the exact cause of these two types of disorders existing simultaneously is not known, there are several theories. Some professionals believe that when a person is afflicted with a mental disorder and not receiving treatment, he may attempt to self-medicate himself with drugs or alcohol. Others believe that the substance abuse often comes first and causes the mental illness. The negative feelings and self image associated with mental illness may also lead people to turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate their distress. There are also certain risk factors for both mental illness and substance abuse, including poverty, social isolation and exposure to drugs, that boost the chances of developing both conditions.

  • Scope

    The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that dual diagnosis is very common among people who suffer from a mental illness. About 29 percent of mentally ill individuals also engage in substance abuse, and over half of drug abusers and 37 percent of alcoholics also have a mental illness. When the mental disorder is particularly severe, the risk of substance abuse increases. For example, almost half of people diagnosed with schizophrenia also have a substance abuse disorder, which is 4 times greater than the percentage of drug or alcohol abusers in the general population. Those with bipolar disorder were also substance abusers 61 percent of the time, which is nearly 5 times more often than the general population.
  • Treatment

    According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Integrated Dual Disorders Treatment can successfully help individuals with dual diagnosis. This type of treatment utilizes a clinical or treatment team with experience in working with dual diagnosis clients. The team conducts combined treatment that addresses both problems. The treatment helps mental illness sufferers look at the role that their substance abuse is playing and helps them to create a recovery plan that works with their overall program.
  • Warning

    Although dual disorder can be treated successfully, there are several barriers. A person with a mental illness who is also abusing drugs or alcohol may be in denial about the problem or ashamed to admit it to a mental health professional. This will create a barrier until she becomes willing to admit the substance abuse and make a commitment to address it. Even if she confronts the problem, if her counselor is not familiar with dual diagnosis treatment, this can create another barrier. If she doesn't feel that she is getting appropriate treatment, she should seek out a professional or treatment team with dual diagnosis experience.
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