If you have an addiction and a mental illness – such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia – then you have a dual diagnosis. About half of people who have a serious mental illness also abuse substances, with 37% of alcoholics and 53% of drug addicts suffering from at least one other mental health condition. A dual diagnosis can complicate your recovery journey, making it more difficult to kick the habit. Proper medical care, though, makes recovery possible.
The Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction
Researchers have so far proposed three potential connections between mental illness and substance abuse. In one scenario, the pain of mental illness pushes people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Because these people are already suffering, they’re more vulnerable to addiction. Other research emphasizes the ways in which substance abuse alters brain chemistry. People with no prior mental health history may develop a mental illness due to drug-induced changes in dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters.
A third theory suggests that brain differences cause both substance abuse and mental illness. After all, substance abuse is a mental disorder in its own right, so it’s possible that people who abuse drugs just have unlucky brain chemistry that subjects them to the risk of a subsequent mental illness. No matter what causes the correlation, though, mental illness makes substance abuse more difficult and more challenging to treat.
The Importance of Proper Treatment
If you have a mental health condition, it’s important to tell your doctor about all of your symptoms. In most cases, you’ll need simultaneous treatment for both conditions. A man struggling with depression, for example, may experience even worse depression when he quits using drugs. With proper depression treatment, though, he can successfully quit drugs while experiencing a reduction in depression symptoms.
Because some mental illness medications – notably stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall – can be addictive, it’s critically important to tell all future medical providers about your history with addiction. In many cases, your doctor can offer you a less addictive treatment. People with ADHD often have excellent luck with Strattera, a non-stimulant medication. Some mental health conditions can also be treated with therapy alone. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has shown excellent results with depression, while people with anxiety and phobias frequently benefit from exposure therapy.
Choosing a Treatment Provider
Before you commit to a treatment provider or specific course of treatment, be sure to ask plenty of questions, including:
- What treatments do you recommend? What are their relative benefits and risks?
- How much experience do you have treating mental illness? Substance abuse? Dual diagnoses?
- What can I do to improve my chances of recovery?
- Are there any helpful lifestyle changes I can make, such as eating a different diet?
- How long will treatment take?
- How can I tell if treatment is working?
- Do I need inpatient care?
- How long have you treated people with dual diagnoses? What is the status of your license to practice?
- What will we do if the first treatment we try doesn’t work?