Addressing a Mental Illness in the Drug Recovery Process

Dual Diagnosis Drug Addiction TreatmentMore than 50 percent of people who suffer from drug addiction also suffer from a mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than one-third of alcoholics also suffer from a mental disease. Finally, when one looks at all of the people who deal with mental illness, almost 30 percent of them also suffer from drug or alcohol addiction.

The numbers speak for themselves. When treating addiction in a recovery setting, it is imperative to address the possibility of mental illness in the person seeking treatment.

What Is a Dual Diagnosis?

When an addict or alcoholic also suffers from a mental illness, they are said to have a “dual diagnosis.” The first diagnosis is the addiction; the second is the mental illness. Such mental illnesses can include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Major depression or bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders

In some cases, the mental illness existed prior to the drug abuse and may have been part of the reason the addiction developed in the first place. Self-medicating is an aspect of addiction brought on by the addict’s need to “treat” an undiagnosed condition, like those mentioned here. The addict does not know they have a treatable mental illness but they know they feel “better” when they use.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Once a diagnosis has been made, there are several treatment options, or combinations of options, that the treatment center may use.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one option. This type of therapy involves a resetting of the thought process as it relates to behaviors and actions. Rather than operating on the notion that the addict has “no other choice” but to use drugs or alcohol to deal with issues they’d rather avoid, they learn that their own thoughts determine their reactions. Their actions are therefore not determined by the outside world.

Change the thinking and you can change the actions.


Sometimes, retraining how an individual thinks is not enough when it comes to a serious mental illness diagnosis. A treatment provider may choose to offer medication to the addict to address the mental illness. Antidepressants, anti-psychotics and anti-schizophrenia medication, when used correctly and responsibly, can make a huge difference in the way an addict sees himself and the world around him. Suddenly, those obstacles that caused him to self-medicate are controlled by legal, monitored prescriptions, and the world isn’t such a scary place anymore.

The Correct Diagnosis Takes Time

The diagnosis process can take a while. It may be weeks into the recovery process before the proper diagnosis is discovered. Diagnosing a mental illness depends on several factors, including the willingness and honesty of the individual being treated. Unlike physical illnesses, a simple blood test will not always provide the correct diagnosis, so the psychologist must glean the information from the behavior patterns, emotional responses and truthful statements from the addict. Many addicts have little control, at least in the beginning of the treatment process, over how they behave or what they might say to get what they want. This can delay a proper diagnosis for several weeks or months.

The importance of addressing the possibility or established existence of mental illness is crucial to the recovery process. If an addict completes the recovery program but does not address the underlying factors that may have contributed greatly to the use of drugs and alcohol, they will most certainly find themselves in a position to relapse.