Understanding Dual Diagnosis Treatment

dual diagnosis

When a person has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder in addition to another mental health disorder diagnosis, this is called a “dual diagnosis.” Dual diagnosis treatment can be a little more difficult because the addiction and mental illness are being treated simultaneously. However, this form of treatment will give you the best chance to recover and reduce your risk of relapse. Dual diagnosis treatment is critical for successful addiction recovery because it treats not only the addiction but the underlying issues that could make the addiction worse.. 

What is a Dual Diagnosis?

When someone has a substance abuse disorder diagnosis they may be struggling with other diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or others. Medically, it is not certain whether addiction or mental illness comes first, because it is different for each individual. Someone who already has a mental health diagnosis may be at a higher risk of addiction because many of those diagnosed with a mental illness choose to abuse drugs and alcohol to mask the symptoms of their mental illness. It is not a sure sign, but it does put a person at risk. Similarly, if a person develops an addiction, it can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses because of the effects of drugs or alcohol on the brain. 

Possible Causes of a Dual Diagnosis

Studies have not yet been able to find an exact cause of dual diagnosis disorders. However, some factors can increase your risk. Such factors include:

  • A history of mental illness in your family
  • A history of substance abuse or addiction in your family
  • Exposure to drugs, viruses, or toxins before birth

Genetic Risk

A history of mental illness or substance abuse disorders in your family puts you at a higher risk of developing a dual diagnosis. Even if you only have one or the other in your family, it can pose a risk of you developing both. This is also true if you were exposed to drugs, toxins, or certain viruses while in your mother’s womb before birth. 

Environmental Risk

Your environment plays a significant role in your risk of developing mental illness or a substance use disorder. For example, physical or psychological trauma during childhood can increase your risk of having a mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress later in life. It is similar with addiction. If a child grows up in a home where drugs or alcohol are used, they are more likely to use drugs or alcohol when they get older. This is because the child has learned that this kind of behavior is okay and acceptable in life despite the consequences it often has. 

Symptoms of a Dual Diagnosis

Because having a dual diagnosis involves both mental illness and a substance abuse disorder, a person will often display physical, cognitive, behavioral, or psychosocial symptoms. 


Physical symptoms that may indicate a co-occurring disorder include malnutrition, fatigue, poor hygiene, insomnia, and quickly gaining or losing weight. 


Cognitive symptoms a person may display include being unable to focus, being paranoid, disorientation, a loss of consciousness, confusion, and anxiety. 


Individuals with a dual diagnosis will often exhibit symptoms such as erratic behavior, isolation, or aggression. They may use drugs or alcohol to cope with their feelings, associate with people who use drugs or alcohol and display less interest in activities they used to enjoy. 


Psychosocial symptoms of dual diagnosis include mood swings, low self-esteem, thoughts of suicide, extreme irritability or depression, fits of rage, hostility, emotional detachment, or feelings of invincibility. 

Treatment for Dual Diagnosis

The best approach to treating a dual diagnosis is treating both substance abuse and mental illness simultaneously. Studies have found that treating the two separately poses a greater risk of relapse after treatment. The recommended mode of treatment for dual diagnosis is a residential or inpatient program. These inpatient programs offer the proper intensive support that is needed to help more severe cases. More stable patients can use an outpatient program to live at home or in a sober environment while engaging in outpatient treatment. 

The standard treatment for dual diagnosis patients is cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment teaches patients to view both the world and how they view themselves in a different light and learn healthy coping mechanisms to make rational decisions. Alternative therapies are also used to help patients relax and find a sense of calm in their treatment. Such therapies include meditation, sound bath therapy, acupuncture, Reiki, Yoga, and more. These are best used in conjunction with evidence-based therapies and medication. 

Ultimately the best form of treatment for those with a dual diagnosis is an individualized plan. Every person’s situation varies, and it is crucial not to treat two patients in the same way. Addressing a client’s specific needs and creating a treatment plan specifically to heal will reap the best results and give them the best chance at long-term recovery. 


It is not uncommon for someone struggling with mental illness to have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder and vice versa. This is why many treatment centers have begun to treat dual diagnoses. A dual diagnosis can profoundly affect an individual’s life, causing a vicious cycle of substance abuse and mental illness. Treatment must include targeting both the substance abuse disorder and the mental illness to reduce the risk of relapse. Evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, somatic experience, and EMDR are used alongside other forms of treatments. Choice House utilizes all of these treatment modalities to give their clients an individualized treatment experience that will help them remain sober and recover. We want to give our clients a treatment approach that will encourage them in recovery and address not only their addiction but also any underlying disorders. For more information on the dual diagnosis treatment at Choice House, give us a call today at (720) 577-4422. You don’t have to struggle alone, we are here to help!

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