Do you know someone simultaneously dealing with a mental illness and a substance use disorder (SUD)? Well, they’re not alone. This condition, called co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis, affects millions in the US and around the globe.
On their own, these disorders are already challenging. So when they co-exist in an individual, it can bring about various consequences that range from physical health problems to suicidal tendencies. And it’s not just detrimental to the person concerned; it also affects the people around them.
Knowing the connection between mental illness and SUD is essential when treating and preventing this condition from taking over one’s life. Read on and learn more about the factors linked to dual diagnosis, including biological, environmental, and psychological influences.
Figuring Out The Link Between Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorder
A co-occurring disorder refers to a phenomenon where someone has a mental health condition and an SUD. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it affects about 9.2 million adults nationwide.
While it doesn’t necessarily mean that a mental disorder causes SUD (and vice versa), the link is strong between the two.
People battling mental health illnesses are especially susceptible to SUD, with statistics showing that these individuals are twice more likely to develop addiction than others. One compelling possibility is that they use alcohol or drugs as a way to cope and alleviate the pain they’re feeling.
Among those with a co-occurring disorder, the most common mental health conditions are as follows:
- Major depressive disorder
- Mood disorders
- Conduct disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Identifying Co-Occurring Disorders
Dual diagnosis treatment facilities employ different approaches in terms of evaluating and addressing a co-occurring disorder. And it depends on the specific symptoms that a person exhibits. However, this phenomenon can be challenging to identify.
Generally speaking, the following are the physical, social, and behavioral symptoms of co-occurring disorders.
- Sudden change in weight (loss or gain)
- Worsening physical appearance, often accompanied by having bloodshot eyes and abnormally sized pupils
- Slurred speech
- Unusual body smells
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Inability to function normally at home, work, or school
- Apathy, lack of motivation, and inattentiveness
- More frequent mood swings and emotional outbursts
- Panic attacks
- Personality change
- Getting into trouble and doing suspicious, risky, and oft-secretive activities
- Changes in their hobbies, people they engage with, and places they hang out
- An unexplained constant need for money
- Changes in how they interact with loved ones and other people
- Cycle of self-medication
- Difficulty in quitting substance use and withdrawal symptoms
- Helplessness and suicidal thoughts
Risk Factors of Dual Diagnosis
What can make someone more at risk of developing a co-occurring disorder? Here are common risk factors.
A co-occurring disorder can run in the blood. It means that if someone in the family has a mental health or substance use disorder, it can increase the future generation’s chance of developing either or both.
Experts also attribute this phenomenon to irregularities that happen in the brain. In some cases, they link brain structure abnormalities or neurochemical imbalances with psychological disorders and SUD. Brain changes can make one more likely to use substances or have a mental health issue — and then trigger the development of the other.
Beyond one’s biological structure, external factors can further contribute to developing a mental health illness and SUD. For example, if someone has experienced childhood trauma and remains untreated, they are more at risk of having a co-existence of these disorders later in life.
These traumatic experiences can include physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and the loss of a loved one.
Moreover, if a person has chronic stress or goes through socio economic issues (e.g., problems with employment, lack of stable housing), it can impact their likelihood of a dual diagnosis. The lack of a proper support system — or being in the wrong company and having peers who encourage negative behaviors — can further worsen their mental health and increase their risk of using addictive substances.
Having a mental health disorder puts an individual in a vulnerable position, prompting them to use drugs or consume alcohol in hopes of reducing their symptoms.
In reality, this coping mechanism is unhealthy and problematic, especially in the long run. It can alter how the brain perceives the rewarding effects of the substance they use while rendering them unaware of the symptoms of their pre-existing mental condition.
Someone experiencing emotional regulation difficulties or ERD (which underlie certain mental health illnesses) may also find themselves using substances like alcohol, drugs, and other stimulants. One study shows that respondents with two or more co-occurring disorders tend to have greater ERD and drink more in response to adverse situations.
Personality Traits and Vulnerabilities
The role of substance use as a form of self-medication is indeed prevalent among people with mental health issues. Many who struggle with such problems turn to alcohol or drug to ease their symptoms, albeit temporarily.
Nonetheless, pre-existing mental health issues aren’t the only culprit. Certain personality traits can make someone more likely to develop a dependency on addictive substances. For instance, research has found that people who are risk-takers and novelty-seekers are more susceptible to substance use comorbidity.
Having a mental health illness and an SUD is a complex situation. Genetics, trauma, continued stress, and peer influence are among the factors that can contribute to its development. But although millions suffer from co-occurring disorders, specialists can design and implement proper intervention plans to treat — or prevent — such a condition.
One of the critical steps they do is to determine someone’s risk factors and tailor their approach based on those. Dual diagnosis treatment facilities are also there to provide a professional environment where affected individuals can receive treatment.
Do you know someone with a dual diagnosis? Roots Through Recovery follows a trauma-focused approach to treating this co-occurrence. Reach out and speak with one of our dedicated professionals.