Dealing with Mental Illness, Addiction Recovery, and Dual Diagnosis Issues


Addiction and alcoholism often comes packaged along with some form of mental illness, whether that is anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, or something else entirely. Estimates vary, but some say that roughly one third to one half of those suffering from addiction issues also have some form of mental illness associated as well.

When the two occur together–addiction and mental illness–they refer to this as a “dual diagnosis.” It can complicate the recovery process a bit, but it is by no means something to get discouraged by. Anyone can recover if they are willing to take the proper steps in order to get the help that they need.

This is actually the first and most important point that we can make, in fact–that a dual diagnosis individual who is seeking help in recovery needs to, above all, listen to health care professionals and follow through with their recommendations.

Why is this the most important point of all? Because of the tendency towards self sabotage. As addicts and alcoholics, we have a strong tendency to try to take control back of our lives, and in doing so, screw everything up.

Early recovery is about letting go of that need to control everything. If we can successfully let go of our need to control everything then we can start to learn a new way of life. The problem is when we are clinging to the old truths in our lives and then we cannot become open to new ideas.

Those first tentative steps in recovery have to made with total and complete willingness to learn and accept new ideas. The only way that an addict or an alcoholic can embrace this as their new solution is to be totally and completely defeated by their addiction first. They must be willing to admit to themselves and to everyone else that they do not know how to live any more.

This is the level of surrender that is required to be successful in addiction recovery, and this is doubly true if there is a dual diagnosis involved. The problem with mental illness and addiction together is that they feed off of each other and loop back into each other. Which is another way of saying that if you are treating just the addiction in isolation without considering the mental illness at all, eventually the mental illness will likely cause you to relapse.

Likewise, if you treating only the mental illness by itself and not really acknowledging the addiction, then eventually the addictive behaviors will bring about a full mental illness relapse as well.

So what is the solution? The solution when it comes to dual diagnosis is always the same: You must treat both disorders concurrently. You have to tackle all of it simultaneously.

In order to do this you are likely going to need a lot of help. It can be a huge struggle for one human being just to tackle their addiction by itself. It can also be a huge struggle just to deal with mental disorders. Taking on both problems at the same time would be overwhelming for pretty much anyone. And yet that is what has to happen if you are going to be successful in recovery.

So how do you approach that big of a problem? How do you get all of this help that you need all at once?

My number one suggestion would be to start by calling an inpatient treatment center. Your journey should really begin as soon as possible in a medical detox facility where you can safely get off of all harmful drugs and alcohol. At that point you are creating a baseline of abstinence and you are getting plugged in to the proper services.

From there, hopefully you can get referred to the services that you need after you complete a 28 day inpatient treatment stay. You will want to get a referral to see a psychiatrist or a doctor who can help to treat your mental illness as you are transitioning out of rehab.

Part of the problem with attempting to treat things such as depression or bipolar disorder is that when we self medicate with drugs or alcohol we are not really giving the mental health system a chance to treat our disorder properly. In other words, being on drugs or booze inhibits our ability to treat mental illness properly. This is especially true in terms of medications that might help our mental disorder. So part of the process has to be getting clean and sober so that we can give our body and our mind a chance to get back to baseline, so that we can then go get properly treated for whatever mental disorder we are suffering from.

Interestingly, when it comes to long term recovery from addiction, there is a great deal of overlap in terms of treating a mental illness as well. In other words, the same things that are recommended for self care when dealing with most mental illness are also the sort of lifestyle improvements that are recommended for long term sobriety. In other words, you want to take care of your mind, body, and spirit when you are in long term recovery from both mental illness as well as addiction.

The key is that you realize that there is a difference between early recovery and long term sobriety. The first 3 months of your recovery process are going to look very different from, say, 3 years down the road in successful recovery. The first 3 months are all about getting as much help as possible, going to inpatient treatment, and tapping into all the right resources that you need. Long term sobriety is all about taking better care of yourself in a holistic sense. But it is important to realize that you cannot just jump ahead to the long term holistic health portion of your recovery without first laying the proper foundation.

This is another way of saying that you need to grasp the basics in recovery before you can get to those advanced stages. What I would recommend is that you start by asking for help and going to inpatient substance abuse rehab. At the same time you need to see a health professional about getting your mental health treated in a very thorough and comprehensive way. Again, you need to do both, and if you cannot get both of those pieces into place early in your recovery then you are very likely to get tripped up with a relapse. Once you relapse all bets are off and you spiral back into the chaos of your disease, losing almost all control over yourself.

So the most important thing is that you surrender fully and make a commitment to yourself that you are going to ask for help, listen to the advice you are given from professionals, and follow through with what they tell you to do. This is the single most important thing that you can do in terms of getting well again. Start out humbly in your recovery journey, follow the suggestions, and you can rebuild a successful life for yourself.