It’s not at all unusual for people with addictions to struggle with other mental health concerns. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that those with a diagnosis of mood disorders or anxiety disorders are about twice as likely to struggle with a drug use disorder, when compared to those who don’t have mental health concerns.

Since these co-occurring disorders are so common, it’s not surprising that mental health professionals have pulled together detailed plans that can help. Since so many people are dealing with these issues, professionals want to develop the right plans that can help.

Many facilities have done just that. The programs they offer, which might be called “dual diagnosis programs” or “co-occurring disorders programs” can provide a great deal of help to people in need. These facilities may be a little different from one another, but often, they provide care that follows the basic principles outlined in this article.

Dual Diagnosis Concerns

Aftercare Support GroupBefore diving into the best treatment options for dual diagnosis, it’s best to outline what the issues are and how they work.

In essence, medical professionals use the term “co-occurring disorders” to describe a combination of an addiction and a mental illness. It can be a little confusing, as addiction is often defined as a mental illness, but the term typically relates to a combination of a substance use disorder and another illness such as:

Researchers aren’t quite sure what causes co-occurring disorders, but new studies seem to shed a little light on who might develop these issues. For example, a study of 55 people who abused cocaine in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry suggests that women don’t have co-occurring disorder risk rates as high as men do. It’s possible that hormonal or other sex-related differences are responsible for that change in risk. But more studies are required in order to really nail down why some people have these issues and others do not. In the interim, it’s safe to say that almost anyone could have a co-occurring disorder.

Often, too, those habits begin quite early in life. For example, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids suggests that about half of people who start smoking before age 15 develop a drug use habit during life. The organization suggests that early tobacco use tends to lead to early drug use. That could up the risk of a mental health concern, as adding drugs to a developing brain could lead to consequences that are difficult to either predict or control. That could mean that very young people experiment with drugs, develop co-occurring mental health concerns, and then spend years trying to handle the issue alone. That’s just the sort of thing experts would like to prevent, and a comprehensive treatment program can help.

A Comprehensive Look

A program that’s truly made for people with co-occurring disorders will address both disorders at the same time. That’s because leaving one issue alone while handling another could lead to very serious consequences. For example, in an article in Psychiatric Times, researchers suggest that handling only an addiction without addressing a mental health concern can lead to program dropout. People who just don’t know how to handle the mental health issues might return to drugs in a misguided attempt to control their concerns. Rather than getting well, people like this might feel worse.

Similarly, dealing with only a mental health issue without addressing a substance use issue can be difficult. Some substances produce symptoms that are similar to those seen in people with mental illnesses, so without sobriety, people might be diagnosed with mental illnesses they just don’t have. The addiction stands in the way of the help they need.

The right kind of help provides care for both problems at the same time. And, it tends to progress a bit more slowly than a standard addiction treatment program, due to the concerns people with co-occurring disorders might have.

For example, people with severe mental illnesses may not think that their substance use is an issue that merits attention, according to an article produced by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In a standard treatment program, people like this might be whisked into detox for care. But in a dual diagnosis program, therapists might spend time discussing addiction and boosting the person’s motivation to change before detox even starts. The treatment is slower, but this sensitive approach allows people to really understand the issue clearly so they can respond appropriately.

Also, since those who have co-occurring conditions may have more challenges to overcome, the programs they enroll in might last for a little longer than a standard program. They have more lessons to learn and issues to overcome, so they might need a program that gives them those lessons over a long period of time. Ending the treatment early could mean cutting them off from care before they’ve made all of the changes they need to make.

Medication Management

Pharmaceuticals can be strikingly helpful during the detoxification process for those suffering from many addictions. Medications, when used appropriately, can soothe physical distress caused by drug withdrawal, and they can help people to feel comfortable and strong enough to continue with the hard work of recovery. People with co-occurring disorders might also benefit from medications for withdrawal and detox, but they might also need different medications for the mental health concerns they face.

As NADD points out, medications alone can’t truly cure a mental health disorder, but they can help to amend the chemical imbalances that drive altered behavior. For example, people with psychotic disorders may struggle to handle everyday conversations, due to the chemical imbalances that prompt them to hear voices and see things. As much as they might want to get better, their chemical distortions block that path to wellness. Medications can be quite useful for them.

Similarly, some people with anxiety disorders grow so fretful at the thought of sobriety that they simply can’t accomplish the task. Medications that work to soothe their concerns and calm their nerves could allow them to really participate in therapy without that fear – and that could keep them from relapsing.


In addition to using medications, treatment teams employ psychotherapy to help their clients to succeed. A review of the evidence, compiled as part of a dissertation conducted for Marquette University, suggests that treatment is often successful. That’s quite a statement, as this particular study was assessing the intersection of post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. This is a serious combination, and if studies suggest that it can be abated with therapy, that’s a really hopeful sign.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that a number of different psychotherapy approaches can help people with co-occurring disorders, including:

  • Therapeutic communities, in which a group of people with similar disorders live together and support one another as they all work toward recovery
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy, in which people who struggle with self-harm urges develop the skills to soothe their distress without harming their bodies in the process
  • Exposure therapy, in which people with anxiety-based disorders face their fears directly and become desensitized to the trigger in the process
  • Integrated group therapy, in which people with certain disorders and addictions work in a group setting to gain control over both issues

Counselors might also incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into their treatment sessions. This form of therapy is designed to help people spot triggers to disordered behaviors from a long ways away, which can allow them to take action to soothe the trigger before they medicate with alcohol, drugs, or behaviors.

Family therapy might also play a role for some people with co-occurring disorders, as this form of treatment allows a group of people to come together to work with a counselor in the same room at the same time. This form of therapy allows a family that’s been struggling with the same problem to really work together, healing old wounds and coming up with new solutions. It can be a profound way to attack a co-occurring disorder.t

Help at Black Bear Lodge

At Black Bear Lodge, we know that it can seem difficult to find a co-occurring disorder treatment program that can help, and we’re here for you. Our facility in Georgia accepts patients from all around the world, and when your loved one arrives, he or she will be treated to therapies that help, soothe and heal. We’d love to tell you about the program we provide, and the help we can give. Please call, and we’ll get the conversation started.