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Dual Diagnosis

Learn about dual diagnosis, a mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse problem and the most effective way of treating dual diagnosis.

What are dual diagnosis services?

Dual diagnosis services are treatments for people who suffer from co-occurring disorders -- mental illness and substance abuse. Research has strongly indicated that to recover fully, a person with co-occurring disorder needs treatment for both problems -- focusing on one does not ensure the other will go away. Dual diagnosis services integrate assistance for each condition, helping people recover from both in one setting, at the same time.

Dual diagnosis services include different types of assistance that go beyond standard therapy or medication: assertive outreach, job and housing assistance, family counseling, even money and relationship management. The personalized treatment is viewed as long-term and can be begun at whatever stage of recovery the person is in. Positivity, hope and optimism are at the foundation of integrated treatment.

How often do people with severe mental illnesses also experience a co-occurring substance abuse problem?

There is a lack of information on the numbers of people with co-occurring disorders, but research has shown the disorders are very common. According to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA):

  • Roughly 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse.
  • Thirty-seven percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness.
  • Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29 percent abuse either alcohol or drugs.

The best data available on the prevalence of co-occurring disorders are derived from two major surveys: the Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Survey (administered 1980-1984), and the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), administered between 1990 and 1992.

Results of the NCS and the ECA Survey indicate high prevalence rates for co-occurring substance abuse disorders and mental disorders, as well as the increased risk for people with either a substance abuse disorder or mental disorder for developing a co-occurring disorder. For example, the NCS found that:

  • 42.7 percent of individuals with a 12-month addictive disorder had at least one 12-month mental disorder.
  • 14.7 percent of individuals with a 12-month mental disorder had at least one 12-month addictive disorder.

The ECA Survey found that individuals with severe mental disorders were at significant risk for developing a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Specifically:

  • 47 percent of individuals with schizophrenia also had a substance abuse disorder (more than four times as likely as the general population).
  • 61 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder also had a substance abuse disorder (more than five times as likely as the general population).

Continuing studies support these findings, that these disorders do appear to occur much more frequently then previously realized, and that appropriate integrated treatments must be developed.

What are the consequences of co-occurring severe mental illness and substance abuse?

For the patient, the consequences are numerous and harsh. Persons with a co-occurring disorder have a statistically greater propensity for violence, medication noncompliance, and failure to respond to treatment than consumers with just substance abuse or a mental illness. These problems also extend out to these consumers' families, friends and co-workers.

Purely healthwise, having a simultaneous mental illness and a substance abuse disorder frequently leads to overall poorer functioning and a greater chance of relapse. These patients are in and out of hospitals and treatment programs without lasting success. People with dual diagnoses also tend to have tardive dyskinesia (TD) and physical illnesses more often than those with a single disorder, and they experience more episodes of psychosis. In addition, physicians often don't recognize the presence of substance abuse disorders and mental disorders, especially in older adults.

Socially, people with mental illnesses often are susceptible to co-occurring disorders due to "downward drift." In other words, as a consequence of their mental illness they may find themselves living in marginal neighborhoods where drug use prevails. Having great difficulty developing social relationships, some people find themselves more easily accepted by groups whose social activity is based on drug use. Some may believe that an identity based on drug addiction is more acceptable than one based on mental illness.

People with co-occurring disorders are also much more likely to be homeless or jailed. An estimated 50 percent of homeless adults with serious mental illnesses have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Meanwhile, 16% of jail and prison inmates are estimated to have severe mental and substance abuse disorders. Among detainees with mental disorders, 72 percent also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.

Consequences for society directly stem from the above. Just the back-and-forth treatment alone currently given to non-violent persons with dual diagnosis is costly. Moreover, violent or criminal consumers, no matter how unfairly afflicted, are dangerous and also costly. Those with co-occurring disorders are at high risk to contract AIDS, a disease that can affect society at large. Costs rise even higher when these persons, as those with co-occurring disorders have been shown to do, recycle through healthcare and criminal justice systems again and again. Without the establishment of more integrated treatment programs, the cycle will continue.

continue: The Importance of Integrated Treatment for Dual Diagnosis Patients


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Last Updated: 07 December 2015
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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