Many People with Mental Illness Also Suffer Chemical Addictions

Many People with Mental Illness Also Suffer Chemical Addictions

Many patients who suffer mental illness may have the disease compounded by substance abuse or addiction – a problem called dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis, like mental illness paired with alcohol or drug addiction, creates a complex condition and may mean the person is at greater risk for relapse. Due to the complicated nature of dual diagnosis, experts are recommending more integrated approaches to treatment.

It is difficult to clearly determine how many people have dual diagnosis, but the National Alliance of Mental Illness believes that of patients who have a serious mental disorder, approximately half will also have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. Nearly one-third, or 29 percent, of patients with a formally diagnosed mental illness will have substance abuse problems. The Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental health Administration agrees, stating that about 50 percent of the 2 million people in the U.S. who have serious mental disorders are also experiencing chemical addictions.

In a 2007 study by Dr. Andrew Chambers, similar results were reported. Chambers’ study reports that between 20 and 50 percent of people who have depression or anxiety disorders will also be addicted to a substance. Up to 80 percent of patients with a personality disorder, such as bipolar, will also have a substance addiction.

Experts suggest the cause of dual diagnosis may be connected to patients’ desire to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol for relief of their symptoms. On a physical level, changes in the region of the brain that manages emotions such as anxiety and fear may be partly to blame. Called the amygdale, Chambers’ study reported that rats with damage to this portion of the brain had abnormal responses to stimuli, including over-addiction to drugs.

Among patients with dual diagnosis, the brain changes could be related to several causes – such as trauma on an emotional level occurring early in life, or genetic tendencies. These factors can make a person more likely to experience a mental disorder in combination with substance addictions. Some patients may remain in denial about one of their conditions, or use one condition purposely to cover up another.
Experts working with dually diagnosed patients report that mental disorders may camouflage symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse, and vice versa. Furthermore, certain symptoms that overlap for drug withdrawal and mental illness – such as anxiety, suicidal tendencies or weight loss – leading to misdiagnosis. In addition, chemical addiction can be untreated, which hinders progress toward recovery from mental illness; at the same time, mental illnesses can slow or stop treatment for substance addictions.

Accuracy of diagnosis and treatment is especially difficult for teenagers, who exhibit normal mood fluctuations and characteristics that can further mask mental illness and addiction. In recent years, treatment for dual diagnosis has become more integrated, with professionals working on one team toward recovery of both conditions. This approach is recommended by the National Institute on Mental Health, which encourages an interconnected philosophy during treatment.
Some people with dual diagnosis may benefit from support groups like Dual Recovery Anonymous, a group based on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. For families living with someone who has been dually diagnosed, the situation can be even more stressful because it can be difficult to find a mental health provider that is able to successfully treat both conditions.

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