Mental Illness Awareness

The first week of October each year is Mental Illness Awareness Week. During this time, organizations and individuals advocate for better health care for mental health and to help fight the stigma that surrounds mental health. Mental illness affects millions, between people with mental health conditions and the loved ones, friends, and coworkers of those who are suffering. In the end, mental illness can take a toll on many lives, both directly and indirectly.

Mental Illness by the Numbers

The numbers of people affected by mental illness in the U.S. are staggering. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and 1 in 6 youth (aged 6-17) also experience a mental health disorder each year. In addition, people who suffer from mental illness are twice as likely to abuse substances. Nearly 3.7% of U.S. adults suffered from a co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder in 2018.

Co-occurring substance Use Disorder and Mental Illness

Symptoms of mental illness can severely affect one's quality of life. Whether a person is suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, it can be challenging to cope with the symptoms. For example, someone with anxiety may abuse depressants in an attempt to calm his or her nerves. A person suffering from depression may abuse alcohol or other substances to make him or her more animated. Unfortunately, when mental illness goes undiagnosed, some may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

On the other hand, substance abuse can also exacerbate an underlying mental illness. Prolonged drug and alcohol abuse causes extreme chemical and physical changes in the brain. As a result, functions such as decision-making, coping skills, and chemical balances are affected. A person with no history of mental illness may suddenly begin showing signs of a mental health condition due to their substance abuse.

Whether or not a mental illness or substance abuse occurred first, both disorders can perpetuate one another. These disorders will only progress and become more severe as time goes on if they are left untreated.

When Co-Occurring Disorders are Left Untreated

When a person seeks addiction treatment, it is equally important that his or her mental health is addressed as well. However, co-occurring disorders can be challenging to diagnose. Many symptoms of substance abuse are similar to those of mental illnesses, causing symptoms of one disorder to mask the symptoms of the other. Similarly, people seeking treatment for mental illness may not address their drug or alcohol use if they do not think it is part of the problem.

Symptoms of co-occurring disorders that often mask one another include:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Sudden changes in behavior or mood
  • Neglecting hygiene and personal health
  • Impulsive or irrational behaviors
  • Difficulty completing responsibilities or tasks
  • Loss of interest in activities one once enjoyed
Leaving co-occurring disorders untreated is a hazardous act. After all, if a person only receives treatment for his or her addiction, that person will still experience symptoms of mental illness long after he or she quits abusing substances. The person may believe that the treatment didn't work and relapse. At the same time, if a person receiving treatment or medication for mental illness continues to abuse substances, the treatment may be ineffective. This can throw an untreated dual-diagnosis individual into a vicious cycle of untreated mental illness and substance abuse. 

Treating Dual Diagnosis

When addiction and mental illness co-exist anindividual'ss life can rapidly spiral out of control. It is crucial to receive proper treatment that addresses both addiction and mental health. Dual diagnosis is a form of integrated treatment that involves the use of behavioral therapies to treat co-occurring substance use disorders and mental illness. With approximately 50% of people with a substance use disorder also suffering from mental illness, dual diagnosis treatment is vital.

Individuals in need of dual diagnosis treatment often benefit from residential programs where added support is available. Types of behavioral therapy that are included in dual diagnosis treatment include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that addresses negative behaviors and helps clients replace these behaviors with positive ones.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) - therapy that helps patients with mental illness cope with their thoughts and symptoms in healthy ways.
  • Group or interpersonal therapy - therapy held in small groups of clients who build relationships with one another, offer support and improve communication skills.
  • Family therapy - since co-occurring disorders affect the entire family in indirect ways, it is essential for families to have the chance to heal and learn how to support their loved ones ' recovery.

Regarding co-occurring disorders, both disorders must be diagnosed and treated correctly. Without dual diagnosis treatment, individuals who are suffering can fall into a painful, life-threatening cycle of self-medicating and relapse. Although neither substance use disorders nor mental illness can be cured, both can be managed with sufficient, ongoing treatment. The key to this type of care is that it is long-term and personalized to meet each client's unique needs. In addition, aftercare, long-term support, and the incorporation of healthy lifestyle habits are necessary for someone with a dual diagnosis to remain in recovery.

Cassidy Webb is an avid writer who advocates spreading awareness of the disease of addiction. Her passion in life is to help others by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.