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A dual diagnosis

The correlation between substance abuse and mental illness

Not Just Substance Abuse

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2010, 45 percent of people with an addiction have a co-occurring disorder.

The term co-occurring disorder replaces the term dual diagnosis, which refers to an individual who has a co-existing mental illness and a substance-use disorder.

Approximately 7.9 million adults in the United States had co-occurring disorders in 2014.

Often, the mental illness would develop first followed by the substance use. Individuals will try and use drugs and alcohol in attempt to feel calm or happy. Doctors refer to this as “self-medication.”

When someone suffering from a mental illness tries to self-medicate, they end up numbing the symptoms, as well as their thoughts. This might be a temporary solution to the problem, but after they use drugs or drink to “forget” their problems, they start to create more. If an individual tries to self-medicate more frequently, they are more likely to develop a dependency on alcohol or drugs.

Anna Russo is in long term recovery and has not picked up a drink or drug since March 18, 2013. She was diagnosed with moderate depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that increases in the winter months when the days are shorter and decreases in the warm summer months, as a freshman in high school.

“My depression caused feelings of hopelessness and loneliness that I used drugs and alcohol to manage,” Russo said. “Alcohol itself is a depressant, which only worsened the feelings I was experiencing. This lead to more drinking and the creation of a vicious cycle.”

In the presence of pain, many people turn to drugs or alcohol to find an escape. Once the brain becomes used to the new chemicals, it will stop the production of natural chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Therefore, any abuse of drugs or alcohol can amplify the presence of a mental illness.

“In my experience, my depression has made it harder to stay clean because in periods of deep depression, I often crave the relief of a drink or a drug,” Russo said. “I am able to get through them with support, but having a mental illness makes it more challenging.”

When addicts are actively using, they tend to feel overwhelmed with stress, money and family. They use alcohol or drugs to try and reduce stress and isolate themselves from those who do not approve of their choices. When an addict becomes sober, they enter into a world where they can not run from their troubles. They have to adjust to living a normal life without the abuse of a substance and suffering from a mental illness as well makes it that much harder.

“Staying clean and sober is a challenge in of itself, whether a co-occurring disorder is present or not,” Russo said. “I do not want to diminish the struggles facing those who solely deal with drug or alcohol addiction.”

Written by: Moira Prior

People who suffer from both a substance use disorder and mental health disorder are diagnosed with co-occurring disorder, also known as a dual diagnosis. Created by: Moira Prior