Dual Diagnosis and Mental Health

You’ve most likely often heard the term “dual diagnosis” but may not be familiar with what the term actually means. “Dual diagnosis” is the term that is used when someone has been diagnosed with two separate illnesses. For example, depression or bipolar disorder co-occurring with addiction (such as alcohol and/or drug use.) Someone who receives a dual diagnosis is considered to have two types of illnesses, and each of those illnesses require their own separate treatment plans.

You’re more likely to see a dual diagnosis in cases that involve mental health. Some of the most common mental health disorders that are part of a dual diagnosis include, as mentioned, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder), OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.) Addition is a common part of a dual diagnosis as drugs and alcohol are used by individuals as an unhealthy coping mechanism in effort to deal with the stress that comes along with having a mental illness. Aside from alcohol, common substances used by individuals include everything from cocaine, marijuana, and benzodiazepines to relieve anxiety, slow down obsessive thoughts, mask moods, temporarily relieve hallucinations, and make social situations more comfortable. Patients may also partake in other addictive-like or high-risk behaviours, such as unprotected sex with multiple partners, or gambling. Having a dual diagnosis also puts individuals at risk of having family conflicts/relationship problems, problems at school or work, financial problems, and they may even become isolated.

Because a dual diagnosis can come in so many forms, they can sometimes be difficult to treat. It can also initially be hard to tell whether or not it is the mental illness that is causing the problem or if it’s the result of substance abuse. This is why healthcare professionals like Dr. Ali Ghahary, a family physician from Vancouver, not only work hard at trying to discover the root cause, but also look at a dual diagnosis as two separate illnesses and treat them both simultaneously. At the same time, it’s also important to treat a dual diagnosis at a pace that is comfortable for the patient – this is due to the mental illness component. As with any illness, a dual diagnosis can be just as overwhelming and may result in setbacks that could lead to the patient continuing their high-risk behaviour. Dual diagnosis treatment, depending on the situation, can take as a little as a few months to several years. That being said, a dual diagnosis is not a rare phenomenon, and patients may also find comfort in knowing that there are many others out there who are going through the same experience as them. While receiving treatment for a dual diagnosis, patients may also benefit from attending support groups to help them feel less alone.

Treatment for a dual diagnosis usually consists of several things, such as educating patients and their families about addiction and mental health disorders, stress management, relapse prevention planning, medication management, as well as holistic therapy (such as yoga, meditation and acupuncture) as well as family counselling.

You can find more information about dual diagnosis via the Canadian Mental Health Association.