Dual Diagnosis: What Is It and How To Treat It

Dual diagnosis means that person has a mental illness and an addiction – of any kind – at the same time. Although co-occurring mental health conditions frequently go hand in hand with alcohol or drug abuse, there are no two people alike.

Thus, every case requires an individual approach, which implies an integrated treatment plan to target both disorders simultaneously.

In this article, you will find information about common mental health disorders connected with substance abuse, how are they being diagnosed, and, more importantly – how to treat dual diagnosis. Read on to figure out how to detect warning signs and get help today.

What is Dual Diagnosis?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” On the other hand, addiction is defined as a “complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences.”

In layman terms, mental illness is having problems with emotions, behaviours, thought process, and moods; addiction is an inability to stop using drugs or alcohol despite knowing that it causes problems. Both mental health disorders and substance abuse can cause severe consequences for the person and those around them.

Every person is unique. Similarly, no two addictions are the same. When determining whether someone has a dual diagnosis or not, it is essential to perform a comprehensive physical and mental examination, get a complete picture of the person’s life, background information, and medical history. Sometimes it requires working closely with the dependent’s family members.

Common Mental Health Disorders Connected with Substance Abuse

Many mental health disorders can co-occur with substance abuse. The most common ones are:

  • Anxiety disorders (including panic attacks),
  • Depression,
  • Bipolar disorder.

Substance abuse and mental health disorders often go hand in hand. According to research data, people with mental health disorders are more likely than others to have substance abuse problems. Additionally, about half of all people with addiction have mental health issues.

Treating Dual Diagnosis

Dealing with multiple issues at the same time can be overwhelming and complicated. Nonetheless, it is essential to remember that no two people are alike; thus, no treatment plan can be used for everyone. That being said, here are some valuable guidelines on how a person with a dual diagnosis should be treated:

Treating Each Disorder Separately

Although this step may seem like a no-brainer, it is essential to start treating individual disorder separately. This will help the patient focus on overcoming one condition at a time without being overwhelmed by multiple challenges at once.

Targeting Negative Thoughts

One of the primary symptoms of depression is negative thoughts about self and others. These thoughts can also trigger anxiety symptoms such as fear, restlessness, and irritability. It is essential to teach patients not to let these negative thoughts overwhelm them, so they don’t spiral into further depression or anxiety conditions.

Treating Co-Occurring Conditions Simultaneously

After treating each individual condition separately, it is crucial to address them simultaneously by targeting their commonalities. It is vital to teach patients how to identify warning signs of relapse and prevent them before they happen.

Addressing Alcoholism or Drug Addiction First

Some people feel guilty about having an addiction problem because they believe that they are letting their loved ones down. Nevertheless, dependent people need treatment for both conditions first; otherwise, they won’t successfully overcome their addiction.

Learning To Deal With Emotions

Individuals who have a dual diagnosis often struggle with coping with their emotions and feelings healthily – especially when they are under stress or surrounded by negative people. Therefore, it is essential to teach patients how to express and deal with emotions by relaxing their body and mind through breathing exercises and meditation techniques. These tools can help them feel more relaxed in everyday situations without turning to drugs or alcohol.

Attending Support Group Meetings

When someone is suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, or another mental illness, it can be hard to find the motivation to start treatment. This is why it is essential to help them find support from not only their close ones but also people who already have been through similar conditions.

Support groups are excellent sources because they offer peer-to-peer support and teach participants how to encourage each other when they feel like giving up.

Making a Commitment to Change

The most crucial step for people with a dual diagnosis in treating it is to commit to change and stick to it. They need to acknowledge that both conditions are treatable and that they should not let their disorders define them. Learning how to overcome the challenges they face every day will only make them stronger.


Dual diagnosis is a complex problem that requires addressing both addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders simultaneously while still having separate ways for treating each of the issues. The connection between these two issues is the reason why treating only one of them usually leads to relapse.

For that reason, treating a co-occurring disorder, as well as diagnosing it, requires a comprehensive approach. It means not only dealing with the symptoms but, first of all, determining the underlying causes of both addiction and mental illness to address their commonalities properly.