Skip to main content

Dual Diagnosis: Self-Medicating the Pain of Mental Illness

Over half of the population that struggles with a mental illness also reports addiction to drugs or alcohol. One source says that 37% of those patients abuse alcohol and 53% abuse drugs.

What is a Mental Illness?

The Mayo Clinic defines mental illness as a disorder that affects one’s mood, ability to think, or ability to react in a normal way to their environment. There are many disorders ranging from barely noticeable to debilitating.

What is the Primary Diagnosis in a Dual Diagnosis?

A dual diagnosis is where a patient has more than one diagnosis, such as addiction to alcohol and depression. It is difficult to figure which problem came first as one may not become observable while the patient is addicted. It is common for a second diagnosis to be seen once a patient detoxes. But it will take collecting a detailed patient history to decide which disorder came first if it is possible to do so.

People who suffer from mental illness often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to avoid the discomfort of the illness. Others self-medicate because they dislike the depressive quality of psychotropic medicines. They prefer the euphoric high of street drugs.


This was the case for Steve. He had a dual diagnosis of Bi-Polar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He disliked the drugs prescribed and drank instead of taking his medication. Eventually he only used alcohol and marijuana to manage his mental illness. But dependency turned to addiction and the combination he chose added extra weight. He found relief in Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-Step Program. One of the recovering addicts suggested he tries Alcoholics Anonymous since she smelled alcohol and pot on him during the meetings. His treatment came full circle, and he again found help for his mental illness.

Sometimes, especially in the youth, dependency is the first problem. Using alcohol and drugs change the neurotransmitters in the brain over time, contributing to a secondary diagnosis of depression or rage.

Overlapping Symptoms of Mental Disorders and Addiction

Addictions have symptoms as do mental illness. Sometimes they share warning signs. Overlapping symptoms of addiction and mental illness include depression, euphoria, moodiness, and social withdrawal. Often it’s difficult to diagnose mental illness until the patient had detoxed from alcohol or drug use.

How to Treat Dual Diagnosis

The first step in treating a dual diagnosis is to detox from the chemical addiction. Once the patient is sober, then a recovery plan can be put into action. Mental illness therapy uses many of the same treatments as addiction recovery. Psychotherapy, group therapy, Dual Diagnosis 12-step programs, and non-traditional therapies will help stabilize the mental illness side of a dual diagnosis. Medication may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms. It is important to allow the medication time to work.

Does Every Rehab Facility Treat Dual Diagnosis Patients?

Not every addiction rehab facility can treat dual diagnosis patients. Read 14 Points to Consider When Choosing a Recovery Rehab Facility for a list of important questions to ask when deciding where to get help. When you are ready for recovery, contact Northlake Recovery for more information on Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment options. If Northlake Recovery in Southern Florida is not a match for your needs, we will help you find a program that is! Call Northlake Recovery now at (561)-770-6616.

Leave a Reply