Drug Addiction and Mental Illness

When people living with mental health disorders have substance abuse problems, it is considered a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. It is estimated that 50% of those living with mental health problems also have a substance abuse problem in order to cope with such overwhelming symptoms. No matter which comes first, one is a risk factor of the other.  

For example, sometimes psychosis can be the start of a more serious condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Risk factors that may contribute to the development of psychosis include stressors such as physical illness, substance use (marijuana, hallucinogens, and stimulants) and psychological or physical trauma.

Below, we’ll discuss symptoms and treatment so you or your loved one can get back on the road to good health. As always, this is a safe, confidential, judgment-free zone, and we are so glad you are here. You are right where you need to be. 


So, what are some of those overwhelming symptoms for people with co-occurring disorders? Dual diagnosis can envelop a number of symptoms, making it difficult to identify people at risk. Some health clinics have developed alcohol and drug screening tools to help.

Substance abuse disorder symptoms:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Developing a high tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Feeling like drugs are needed to be able to function

Symptoms of a mental health condition can also vary greatly:

  • Extreme mood changes
  • Confused thinking
  • Problems concentrating
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Thoughts of suicide

Again, it’s important to iterate that those living with mental health illness have an increased risk for substance abuse disorders. Both are treatable.


The most effective treatment for dual diagnosis is integrated intervention, which is when a person receives long term care for both their diagnosed mental illness (such as bipolar disorder) and their substance use disorder. The notion that your depression cannot be treated because you are also drinking, for example, is outdated. Current thinking requires both issues be addressed simultaneously.

Together with your integrated treatment provider, you’ll come to understand the ways each condition affects the other and how your treatment can be most effective.

Treatment programs and planning will not be the same for everyone, but there are a few common elements.


The first major hurdle that people with a substance use disorder will have to pass is detoxification. Inpatient detoxification is generally more effective than outpatient for initial sobriety and safety.

During inpatient detoxification, trained medical staff monitor a person 24/7 for up to seven days. The staff may administer tapering amounts of the substance or its medical alternative to wean a person off and lessen the effects of withdrawal.

Inpatient Rehabilitation

A person experiencing a mental illness and dependent patterns of substance use may benefit from an inpatient rehabilitation center where they can receive medical and mental health care 24/7. These treatment centers provide therapy, support, medication, and health services to treat the substance use disorder and its underlying causes.

Psychotherapy is usually a large part of an effective treatment plan. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people with dual diagnosis learn how to cope and change ineffective patterns of thinking, which may increase the risk of substance use.

Medications and Housing are Useful for Treating
Mental Illness

Certain medications can also help people experiencing substance use disorders ease withdrawal symptoms during the detoxification process.

Supportive Housing, like group homes or sober houses, are residential treatment centers that may help people who are newly sober or trying to avoid relapse. Sober homes have been criticized for offering varying levels of quality care because licensed professionals do not typically run them. Please do some research before making a selection.

Self-Help and Support Groups

Dealing with a dual diagnosis can feel challenging and isolating. Support groups allow members to share frustrations, celebrate successes, find referrals for specialists, find the best community resources and swap recovery tips. They also provide a space for forming healthy friendships filled with encouragement to stay clean.

Here are a few groups to check out:

  • Double Trouble in Recovery is a 12-step fellowship for people managing both a mental illness and substance use disorders.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are 12-step groups for people recovering from alcohol abuse or drug addiction. Be sure to find a group that understands the role of mental health treatment in recovery.
  • Smart Recovery is a sobriety support group for people with a variety of addictions that is not based in faith.
To locate treatment, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a 24/7 Helpline with national treatment referrals to programs that specialize in helping people with a dual diagnosis recover. They can be reached at 800-662-HELP (4357). Another great source of information on treatment, prevention and understanding how drugs work in the brain and body is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).


We are the local affiliate of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a grassroots organization dedicated to educating everyone – from young people to mature adults – that mental health conditions are treatable and recovery is possible. The earlier they are detected, the better. Early detection, treatment and recovery aren’t just for cancer patients. They are for us, too.