Dual Diagnosis: The Link Between Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

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If you’re suffering from a mental health issue, you may find yourself turning to drugs or alcohol to help you cope with the symptoms.

Similarly, if you regularly abuse drugs or alcohol, you may find yourself with symptoms  of a mental health disorder as a result. If this is something you’re suffering from, you have a “dual diagnosis” and it’s vital that you find the right treatment for it.

You may also hear a dual diagnosis referred to as a co-occurring disorder or comorbidity. These terms all mean the same thing: that you’re suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction as well as a behavioral or mental health disorder.1

Sometimes the mental health disorder comes first leading to substance abuse and in other cases, the substance abuse problem comes first leading to emotional and mental problems.1

Comorbidity may be more common than you think. There have been estimations that nearly 8 million Americans over 18 years old suffer from dual diagnosis.2 About 23% of adults receiving treatment for a serious mental health condition also suffer substance use disorder. 2 Adults with a substance use disorder are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders.2

Continue reading to learn more about the link between addiction and mental health disorders.

Why Turn to Drugs or Alcohol?

There are many reasons why you may find yourself suffering from both an addiction and mental health condition. If you have a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, you may find that alcohol or certain drugs help relieve some of your symptoms, such as:3,4

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless.
  • Weight gain/loss.
  • Changes in sleeping habits.
  • Loss of energy.
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Difficulty relaxing.
  • Feeling worried, nervous, panicked, or uneasy.

An important thing to remember is that the longer you use alcohol or other drugs to relieve these symptoms, the more likely it is that you’ll end up addicted to these substances.1 This will end up making your treatment for your mental health condition more complicated.

On the flip side, if you abuse drugs, you are putting your mental health at risk and you may find yourself suffering from a conditions such as anxiety or depression.1

Common Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

Some mental health conditions that are commonly seen occurring with an addiction include mood and anxiety disorders, such as:5

  • Anxiety.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Depression.
  • Personality disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s important that you receive an accurate diagnosis of your co-occurring disorders so they can be treated properly.

How Do I Treat My Dual Diagnosis?

It’s important to find a rehab program that will treat both your substance abuse and mental health disorder simultaneously. If you don’t find a program or treatment center that has an integrated approach, your recovery may be quite difficult and you may find yourself relapsing.

Make sure you ask your treatment facility if they have the expertise and resources to treat your dual diagnosis before you commit to a program.

Your treatment will typically include:6

  • Detox.
  • Behavioral therapy (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, integrated group therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychotherapy).
  • Medication. Depending on your mental health condition, this could include lithium (for bipolar disorder), anti-convulsants (to help stabilize your mood), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (for anxiety and alcohol abuse), buspirone (for anxiety and alcohol abuse), and topiramate (for cocaine addiction and anxiety).


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Dual Diagnosis.
  2. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50).
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Anxiety Disorders.
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2016).  Signs and Symptoms of Depression.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2010). Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses.
  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Behavioral Health Treatments and Services.
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Lizmarie Maldonado works for The John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (University of Miami) as a biostatistician, conducting genetic research for Parkinson's disease.

She received a Master of Science in Public Health from the University of South Florida, after which she worked as an epidemiologist at the local health department in Miami-Dade.

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