It’s hard to imagine anything taking the kind of mental toll that addiction does. An addict literally loses control of their life as their drug-altered brain refuses to focus on anything but using again, even if they are fully aware of how it’s hurting them. Anyone can imagine this would cause unbearable stress, and so it’s no surprise that a significant proportion of addicts also suffer from mental illness.
It’s called “dual diagnosis”—when treatment providers simultaneously diagnose addiction along with mental illness in the same patient. Unfortunately, this occurrence is disturbingly common. According to the American Medical Association, 37% of alcoholics and 53% of drug addicts struggle with serious mental illnesses. For these patients, it takes more than addiction rehab for them to get back to health. Thankfully, many treatment facilities also employ mental health professionals for exactly these circumstances.
The most common mental illnesses for addicts to have are depressive disorders (like depression, or bipolar disorder) and anxiety disorders (like panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, and phobias). People suffering from schizophrenia are also generally more likely to suffer from addiction than those without. While none of these illnesses guarantee drug use, let alone addiction, studies find that the two often find their way together.
While it’s often the unrelenting stress of addiction that leads to mental illness, sometimes the opposite can occur. Many who suffer from mental illness seek to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in order to dull their pain, only to stumble into addiction. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, people suffering from a manic episode are nearly 15% more likely to become addicted than a healthy person, and someone in the midst of a serious depressive episode is just over 4% more likely. These risk factors explain why these two pernicious diseases so often go hand in hand.
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Once one understands this connection between addiction and mental illness, it becomes obvious that the best way to deal with a patient’s dual diagnosis is dual treatment. That is, once the intense process of detoxification is completed, treatment providers help to heal both of their patient’s afflictions simultaneously. Just like with addiction, mental illness can be effectively treated with education and meetings with therapists, both one-on-one and in groups. By understanding what their illness is, and talking about what it does to them, patients can learn to recover their mental health.
Addicts and their families both need to remember that neither addiction nor mental illness are things that happen because the victim was bad, nor are they things one should be disappointed in someone for having. They are both diseases that take a desperate grip on a person and force them into living a different life than the one they would choose. But, with treatment, effort, understanding, education, acceptance, and support, drug and alcohol recovery is possible.