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What is Dual Diagnosis Treatment? Here are 5 Things You Should Know

If you or a loved one are planning to go to a treatment center for substance abuse, you’ve probably heard the term ‘dual diagnosis’ repeated over and over again. All of the best rehabs offer dual diagnosis treatment. It is often one of the very first things they will tell you about the institution. But what is dual diagnosis treatment?

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

The basic definition of dual diagnosis treatment is fairly straightforward. Dual diagnosis refers to the reality that many people addicted to substances are also suffering from at least one other mental illness. Dual diagnosis treatment takes this into account and addresses all the issues concurrently.

There is a lot to go into when it comes to dual diagnosis treatment. However, the following 5 facts will tell you what you need to know when entering rehab.

1. Dual diagnoses are extremely common:

You may not have heard of dual diagnosis treatment before, but that’s not because it’s uncommon. On the contrary, dual diagnoses are extremely common. This is true when you look at it from both angles.

People with mental illnesses are much more likely to develop substance use disorders. As such, more than a quarter of all people suffering from a mental illness also suffer from a substance use problem.

When focusing on addiction, the numbers are even higher. 37 percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness. Since many substance users with co-occurring disorders are still only given one diagnosis, it is likely that these figures don’t tell the full story.

2. Mental illness can lead to substance abuse (and vice versa):

Dual diagnoses are rarely due to happenstance. Rather, one often leads to the other. A person suffering from a mental illness may turn to substances for relief when they do not find it elsewhere. They become dependent on these substances, leading to a diagnosis of substance use disorder.

It works the other way around as well. People with substance use disorders stop using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with problems. They learn to use substances instead. Eventually, they can no longer manage their normal emotions in a healthy way. This leads to illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders.

There are also sometimes biological factors involved. Substances can change your brain chemistry. A common example is cocaine use which may precipitate panic attacks and anxiety.

3. Certain mental illnesses are associated with specific substances:

Because one diagnosis often leads to the other, it is no surprise that certain mental illnesses and substances are associated with one another. As mentioned, cocaine can precipitate panic attacks and anxiety. In the same vein, alcohol (which is a depressant) can precipitate feelings of depression.

Often it is a type of self-medication that leads people with a mental illness to become addicted to specific substances. For example, people with sleep disorders may turn to substances like sleeping pills and alcohol which initially help them fall asleep.

There are many similar examples. People with OCD turn to alcohol to drown out the obsessive thoughts. People with depression use substances that are more likely to get them high and feeling ‘good’.

The mental illness most strongly associated with substance use is bipolar disorder. An estimated 50 to 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder become addicted to substances.

4. There are underlying factors in some cases:

While it is common for one diagnosis to lead to another, there are underlying factors that make dual diagnoses more common for some people. These include:


It has long been common knowledge that genetics can be a major factor in the development of mental illness. A family history of mental illness is common among sufferers of mental illness. For some people, the same genetic factors make it more likely that they will develop a substance use disorder as well. Genes also impact the way that substances interact with the body.


Risk-taking and novelty-seeking are common personality traits that relate to both substance abuse and other mental disorders.

Brain chemistry:

High or low levels of certain brain chemicals can lead to both mental illness and substance use.

5. Dual diagnosis treatment needs to address disorders concurrently:

One of the most important axioms that informs dual diagnosis treatment is that the disorders cannot be treated in isolation. If you treat the addiction alone, the co-occurring illness will likely lead to relapse. If you treat the co-occurring illness alone, the addiction will likely lead to a worsening of mental health.

For this reason, the best treatment centers target all diagnosed illnesses at the same time. This not only means that the individual receives different types of treatment during their stay in rehab. It also means that every professional who treats them takes their entire context into account.

Dual diagnosis centers are so important and effective because every staff member in the unit is aware of the person holistically. Individual therapists tackle the psyche with an understanding of the person’s substance use disorder. Group therapists are able to help members gain insight into their addiction with what they know about the co-occurring disorders.

Dual diagnosis treatment is complex and the best rehabs embrace that complexity. They help patients learn healthy coping mechanisms while exploring everything underlying what led the person to rehab. They see each patient holistically, acknowledging that what they have gone through did not occur in isolation.

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