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Effective Treatments for Drug Addicts with Mental Illness

Substance abuse and mental illness are often so tightly intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that at least 50 percent of people with a mental illness also abuse drugs or alcohol. This close relationship makes it hard for addiction professionals to find the best way to treat people with a dual diagnosis.

Does Addiction Cause Mental Illness?

There’s no easy answer to the question of how addiction and mental illness influence each other. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that in some cases, drug abuse may cause mental illness. Drugs like meth, cocaine and heroin can cause changes in brain chemistry that lead to mood disorders, cognitive impairment, depression or anxiety. On the other hand, many people who have a chronic mental illness learn to use drugs or alcohol as a way to manage their symptoms. In yet another possible scenario, addiction and mental illness are caused by the same risk factors, such as genetic makeup, trauma, impaired family relationships or social instability.

*Which Substances Are Commonly Abused by People With Mental Illness?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the substances abused most frequently by people with a dual diagnosis are, in order:

  1. Alcohol
  2. Marijuana
  3. Cocaine
  4. Prescription tranquilizers and sleeping medications

NAMI adds that most mentally ill people who abuse drugs or alcohol are males, and most are between the ages of 18 and 44.

Why Is It So Hard to Get Help?

If you drink heavily, misuse prescription meds or take street drugs, and you’re trying to cope with a mental illness, you may at a loss about how and where to get help. Dual diagnosis rehabilitation programs are available to treat both your addiction and your mental illness, but finding these facilities can be challenging.

The mentally ill face a lot of barriers when they seek treatment for substance abuse. Addiction treatment facilities and self-help groups often don’t have the resources to identify or treat mental illness, and as a result, certain behaviors may be misunderstood. Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions may make it difficult for the mentally ill to interact consistently with counselors and peers. People who are disabled by chronic mental illness may find it difficult to attend meetings or appointments regularly, especially if they don’t have reliable transportation.

What Type of Treatment Works?

Providing care for people with a dual diagnosis requires extensive training, clinical insight, support and compassion. Counselors and doctors who treat the dually diagnosed must have empathy both for their mental status and their physical addiction.

NAMI cautions that traditional treatment programs may not work for people with a dual diagnosis. Treatment protocols that are based on confrontation and heavy emotional disclosure may be too intense for someone with a mental illness. In addition, many treatment programs discourage the use of psychotherapeutic medications, especially potentially habit-forming drugs like benzodiazepines. In some of the more extreme self-help groups, even relying on antidepressants is considered to be a threat to sobriety.

So what kind of treatment is most effective for the dually diagnosed? Treatment programs that address the mental illness first may be the best approach, according to NAMI. Counselors should be prepared to address treatment gradually, respecting the client’s emotional boundaries. Drug addicts who also suffer from mental illness may not be aware of the severity of their addiction, and they may not respond well to direct confrontation. If you’ve been managing a mental illness with drugs or alcohol, call our toll-free number to find compassionate addiction treatment.