Dual diagnosis addiction refers to the comorbidity of a substance abuse disorder and a mental illness. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 45 percent of American adults struggling with addiction have a dual diagnosis disorder. While this number seems exceptionally high, it is largely due to the fact that those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are over twice as likely to engage in substance abuse. Untreated mental illness lends itself to self-medication – those suffering from disruptive symptoms often turn to drugs and alcohol in attempts to alleviate these symptoms. It was also reported that 17.5 million adults over the age of 18 suffered from a serious mental illness within the past year. It is important to note that dual diagnosis disorder can refer to any number of potential combinations of substance use and mental health disorder, ranging from mild depression and binge drinking to severe bipolar disorder and heroin addiction. Those with dual diagnosis disorders are often extremely functional, especially within the workforce. If you believe that you may be suffering from an untreated mental health condition in addition to a substance abuse disorder, seeking professional treatment will be necessary. To learn more about dual diagnosis treatment reach out to Guardian IOP at any point in time.

About Addiction

Addiction is the continuation of substance-seeking behavior and compulsive substance use despite the accumulation of negative personal consequences. Addiction is a disease of the brain, one that – if left untreated – will lead to severe self-destruction and ongoing relapse. No matter how much an addicted individual attempts to quit using, he or she will find that doing so is impossible for any extended period of time. Addiction and mental health go hand-in-hand in many instances. Those with untreated mental illness will turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medication, and those who compulsively abuse drugs or alcohol for years on end are liable to do permanent damage to their brain chemistry, which could result in mental illness. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIH) confirms that drug addiction itself is a mental illness. A recent study published by the NIH reads, “Did you know that addiction to drugs or alcohol is a mental illness? Substance use disorder changes normal desires and priorities. It changes normal behaviors and interferes with the ability to work, go to school, and to have good relationships with friends and family.” Another name for a dual diagnosis disorder is comorbidity. Not only does the word describe the presence of two or more disorders, but it suggests that the interactions between the individual disorders can worsen the symptoms of both.

For example, if an individual who is suffering from untreated depression begins drinking to alleviate feelings of deep sadness, he or she may feel temporary relief. However, because alcohol is a depressant, it will ultimately make the symptoms of depression significantly worse.

About Mental Health

There are many reasons why comorbid disorders tend to co-occur. Some of the reasons include:

  • Overlapping risk factors when it comes to mental health and addiction. 

Studies show that the genes responsible for mental illness are also responsible for substance abuse – and vice versa. Genetic predisposition and environmental factors can both be considered in the development of mental health issues, including addiction.

  • Substance abuse can lead to mental health issues. 

Some substances lead to mental illness – for example, repetitive methamphetamine abuse can lead to anxiety disorders or psychosis.

  • Untreated mental health issues often provoke substance use. 

Those who struggle with mental illness might find that certain chemical substances enhance pleasure centers within the brain. In addition to self-medication, this can lead to the development of addiction.

In order for comorbid disorders to be effectively treated, an individual must undergo an intensive and integrated treatment program. This will usually include a variety of methodologies – both psychiatric and therapeutic. Without integrated care the chances of relapse rise significantly.

The NIH also reports that some disorders are more commonly comorbid than others. These include anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. Here is a more in-depth look at the disorders that are commonly diagnosed along with addiction:

  • Depressive disorders. Everyone has the occasional bad day, whether it is a result of problems at home, problems at work, a failed exam, or simply waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Depression is much more than a bad day – depressive disorders cause crippling sadness that greatly interfere with day to day life. In order to alleviate these feelings of sadness, some individuals will turn to drugs and alcohol.
  • Anxiety disorders. There are numerous types of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias and social anxiety disorder. Those experiencing anxiety will often turn to drugs with calming effects, such as prescription sedatives. Prescription drug abuse often leads to addiction.
  • Bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness, characterized by swift and intense changes in mood and energy levels. This can be a difficult disorder to manage when it is left unmedicated. Those suffering from bipolar disorder might begin using drugs to combat symptoms, or they might start using them to combat the feelings of sadness, hopelessness and defeat that come with ongoing personal consequences.
  • Schizophrenia. It is actually common for schizophrenia to be confused with substance abuse, because the use of some drugs will result in similar symptoms. A study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience reads, “The comorbidity of schizophrenia and substance abuse has attracted increasing attention in the past years, with multiple potential links, including genetic vulnerability, neurobiological aspects, side effects of medications, and psychosocial factors being under discussion.”
  • Personality disorders. A personality disorder is a specific type of mental illness that is characterized by unusual and rigid behavioral patterns and thinking patterns. Those with personality disorders have a difficult time relating to others, and often usually cannot read or decipher social cues.
  • Seasonal affective disorder. While this is a type of depressive disorder, it is very commonly the cause for substance abuse in its sufferers. Seasonal affective disorder essentially means that the sufferer is depressed during gloomy weather, and it is especially common in areas that do not get a lot of sunlight or experience a lot of rain.

Why Dual Diagnosis Treatment is Important

It is absolutely crucial that all mental health concerns (including substance abuse or dependency) are treated simultaneously. Some commonly utilized treatment options include:

  • Individual and group talk therapy. 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 
  • Contingency management. 
  • Ongoing psychiatric care. 

Guardian IOP and Dual Diagnosis

At Guardian IOP, we understand the prevalence of dual diagnosis disorders and believe that in order to best serve our clients, offering some degree of dual diagnosis treatment is essential. Our intensive outpatient program caters to those with undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions as well as addictive disorders. Our professional staff is composed of licensed therapists and psychiatrists, as well as addiction specialists and dedicated, compassionate counselors. No matter what your specific needs, we will develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to your individual goals. For more information on our program of dual diagnosis addiction recovery, give us a call today.  We look forward to speaking with you soon.


Reviewed for accuracy by:

Anna earned her Masters of Social Work at Barry University in Miami, FL in 2017 and completed her internship in co-occurring disorders. Anna has a Bachelors of Art in Religious Studies from Naropa University and is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. Anna has received specialized training in somatic counseling with an emphasis on body-centered psychotherapy.