Dual Diagnosis Consequences and Treatment

Learn about dual diagnosis, which is a mental illness plus a co-occurring substance abuse problem, and the most effective way of treating a dual diagnosis.

What Are Dual Diagnosis Services?

Dual diagnosis services are treatments for people who suffer from co-occurring disorders -- mental illness and substance abuse. Research has strongly indicated that to recover fully, a person with co-occurring disorder needs treatment for both problems -- focusing on one does not ensure the other will go away. Dual diagnosis services integrate assistance for each condition, helping people recover from both in one setting, at the same time.

Dual diagnosis services include different types of assistance that go beyond standard therapy or medication: assertive outreach, job and housing assistance, family counseling, even money and relationship management. The personalized treatment is viewed as long-term and can be begun at whatever stage of recovery the person is in. Positivity, hope, and optimism are at the foundation of integrated treatment.

How often do people with severe mental illnesses also experience a co-occurring substance abuse problem?

There is a lack of information on the numbers of people with co-occurring disorders, but research has shown the disorders are very common. According to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA):

  • Roughly 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse.
  • Thirty-seven percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness.
  • Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29 percent abuse either alcohol or drugs.

The best data available on the prevalence of co-occurring disorders are derived from two major surveys: the Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Survey (administered 1980-1984), and the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), administered between 1990 and 1992.

Results of the NCS and the ECA Survey indicate high prevalence rates for co-occurring substance abuse disorders and mental disorders, as well as the increased risk for people with either a substance abuse disorder or mental disorder for developing a co-occurring disorder. For example, the NCS found that:

  • 42.7 percent of individuals with a 12-month addictive disorder had at least one 12-month mental disorder.
  • 14.7 percent of individuals with a 12-month mental disorder had at least one 12-month addictive disorder.

The ECA Survey found that individuals with severe mental disorders were at significant risk for developing a substance use disorder during their lifetime. Specifically:

  • 47 percent of individuals with schizophrenia also had a substance abuse disorder (more than four times as likely as the general population).
  • 61 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder also had a substance abuse disorder (more than five times as likely as the general population).

Continuing studies support these findings, that these disorders do appear to occur much more frequently than previously realized, and that appropriate integrated treatments must be developed.

What are the consequences of co-occurring severe mental illness and substance abuse?

For the patient, the consequences are numerous and harsh. Persons with a co-occurring disorder have a statistically greater propensity for violence, medication noncompliance, and failure to respond to treatment than consumers with just substance abuse or a mental illness. These problems also extend out to these consumers' families, friends, and co-workers.

Purely healthwise, having a simultaneous mental illness and a substance abuse disorder frequently leads to overall poorer functioning and a greater chance of relapse. These patients are in and out of hospitals and treatment programs without lasting success. People with dual diagnoses also tend to have tardive dyskinesia (TD) and physical illnesses more often than those with a single disorder, and they experience more episodes of psychosis. In addition, physicians often don't recognize the presence of substance abuse disorders and mental disorders, especially in older adults.

Socially, people with mental illnesses often are susceptible to co-occurring disorders due to "downward drift." In other words, as a consequence of their mental illness, they may find themselves living in marginal neighborhoods where drug use prevails. Having great difficulty developing social relationships, some people find themselves more easily accepted by groups whose social activity is based on drug use. Some may believe that an identity based on drug addiction is more acceptable than one based on mental illness.

People with co-occurring disorders are also much more likely to be homeless or jailed. An estimated 50 percent of homeless adults with serious mental illnesses have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Meanwhile, 16% of jail and prison inmates are estimated to have severe mental and substance abuse disorders. Among detainees with mental disorders, 72 percent also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.

Consequences for society directly stem from the above. Just the back-and-forth treatment alone currently given to non-violent persons with dual diagnosis is costly. Moreover, violent or criminal consumers, no matter how unfairly afflicted, are dangerous and also costly. Those with co-occurring disorders are at high risk to contract AIDS, a disease that can affect society at large. Costs rise even higher when these persons, as those with co-occurring disorders have been shown to do, recycle through healthcare and criminal justice systems again and again. Without the establishment of more integrated treatment programs, the cycle will continue.

Why is an integrated approach to treating severe mental illnesses and substance abuse problems so important?

Despite much research that supports its success, integrated treatment is still not made widely available to consumers. Those who struggle both with serious mental illness and substance abuse face problems of enormous proportions. Mental health services tend not to be well prepared to deal with patients having both afflictions. Often only one of the two problems is identified. If both are recognized, the individual may bounce back and forth between services for mental illness and those for substance abuse, or they may be refused treatment by each of them. Fragmented and uncoordinated services create a service gap for persons with co-occurring disorders.

Providing appropriate, integrated services for these consumers will not only allow for their recovery and improved overall health but can ameliorate the effects their disorders have on their family, friends and society at large. By helping these consumers stay in treatment, find housing and jobs, and develop better social skills and judgment, we can potentially begin to substantially diminish some of the most sinister and costly societal problems: crime, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and more.

There is much evidence that integrated treatment can be effective. For example:

  • Individuals with a substance abuse disorder are more likely to receive treatment if they have a co-occurring mental disorder.
  • Research shows that when consumers with dual diagnosis successfully overcome alcohol abuse, their response to treatment improves remarkably.

With continued education on co-occurring disorders, hopefully, more treatments and better understanding are on the way.

What does effective integrated treatment entail?

Effective integrated treatment consists of the same health professionals, working in one setting, providing appropriate treatment for both mental health and substance abuse in a coordinated fashion. The caregivers see to it that interventions are bundled together; the consumers, therefore, receive consistent treatment, with no division between mental health or substance abuse assistance. The approach, philosophy and recommendations are seamless, and the need to consult with separate teams and programs is eliminated.

Integrated treatment also requires the recognition that substance abuse counseling and traditional mental health counseling are different approaches that must be reconciled to treat co-occurring disorders. It is not enough merely to teach relationship skills to a person with bipolar disorder. They must also learn to explore how to avoid the relationships that are intertwined with their substance abuse.

Providers should recognize that denial is an inherent part of the problem. Patients often do not have insight as to the seriousness and scope of the problem. Abstinence may be a goal of the program but should not be a precondition for entering treatment. If dually diagnosed clients do not fit into local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups, special peer groups based on AA principles might be developed.

Clients with a dual diagnosis have to proceed at their own pace in treatment. An illness model of the problem should be used rather than a moralistic one. Providers need to convey an understanding of how hard it is to end an addiction problem and give credit for any accomplishments. Attention should be given to social networks that can serve as important reinforcers. Clients should be given opportunities to socialize, have access to recreational activities, and develop peer relationships. Their families should be offered support and education while learning not to react with guilt or blame but to learn to cope with two interacting illnesses.

What are the key factors in effective integrated treatment?

There are a number of key factors in an integrated treatment program.

Treatment must be approached in stages. First, trust is established between the consumer and the caregiver. This helps motivate the consumer to learn the skills for actively controlling their illnesses and focus on goals. This helps keep the consumer on track, preventing relapse. Treatment can begin at any one of these stages; the program is tailored to the individual.

Assertive outreach has been shown to engage and retain clients at a high rate, while those that fail to include outreach lose clients. Therefore, effective programs, through intensive case management, meeting at the consumer's residence, and other methods of developing a dependable relationship with the client, ensure that more consumers are consistently monitored and counseled.

Effective treatment includes motivational interventions, which, through education, support and counseling, help empower deeply demoralized clients to recognize the importance of their goals and illness self-management.

Of course, counseling is a fundamental component of dual diagnosis services. Counseling helps develop positive coping patterns, as well as promotes cognitive and behavioral skills. Counseling can be in the form of individual, group, or family therapy or a combination of these.

A consumer's social support is critical. Their immediate environment has a direct impact on their choices and moods; therefore consumers need help strengthening positive relationships and jettisoning those that encourage negative behavior.

Effective integrated treatment programs view recovery as a long-term, community-based process, one that can take months or, more likely, years to undergo. Improvement is slow even with a consistent treatment program. However, such an approach prevents relapses and enhances a consumer's gains.

To be effective, a dual diagnosis program must be comprehensive, taking into account a number of life's aspects: stress management, social networks, jobs, housing and activities. These programs view substance abuse as intertwined with mental illness, not a separate issue, and therefore provide solutions to both illnesses together at the same time.

Finally, effective integrated treatment programs must contain elements of cultural sensitivity and competence to even lure consumers, much less retain them. Various groups such as African-Americans, homeless, women with children, Hispanics and others can benefit from services tailored to their particular racial and cultural needs.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2019, October 16). Dual Diagnosis Consequences and Treatment, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Last Updated: October 23, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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