What is Dual Diagnosis?

Mental illness and mental health issues are incredibly complex, and the treatments available for them can be equally complicated. No matter the type of illness or condition, a diagnosis needs to take place before a treatment can be decided on. However, diagnosis can be made extremely difficult when a mental health issue is accompanied by substance abuse. If the two issues exist independently in one person, that person might be suffering from co-occurring disorders.

What is dual diagnosis?

When someone suffers from both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem, this is described as “dual diagnosis” or “co-occurring disorders.” In this practice, an individual is typically dually diagnosed when their two conditions occur independently of each other and not as a symptom. For example, an alcohol addiction would be treated separately from an anxiety disorder based on the idea that one has not caused the other, but rather that they have arisen separately. If the the substance abuse developed as a coping mechanism of anxiety, then this would not be a “co-occurring disorder.” Though this is the case, one disorder may cause the other to worsen though this may not be causal.


Individuals living with a dual diagnosis have a more complicated time finding the best treatment and moving towards recovery—not only do they have to tackle one major health issue, but two unrelated by co-existing problems become a part of their everyday life. Because of the complexity and intertwined nature of this type of situation,  the two conditions are reviewed separately to adequately address both.


Image Morgan Sessions

Common Dual Diagnoses

Common dual diagnoses include drug and alcohol or drug addictions alongside  depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and personality disorders. There is no single combination of dual diagnoses and they can be just as unique as the individual experiencing them. Because of the diverse nature within dual diagnosis, treatment is complicated as there is no one-size fits all approach. Along with this, it can be difficult to determine exactly where certain symptoms are coming from. Understanding each part of the diagnoses—both the addiction and the mental health issue—will help determine the root of the symptoms and can lead to the best possible treatment.

Drug addiction, for example, is considered a mental illness. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine with 100% accuracy if dual diagnosis is present without the mental health component being understood first. This can lead to some confusion and uncertainty about which component came first. Though complex, as noted above, dual diagnoses can be effectively treated, it can just take time and most importantly, support.

The important thing to know about dual diagnosis is that each case will be unique. Because many individuals dealing with an addiction often experience some sort of mental illness, an integrated treatment program is the most effective. Finding a treatment facility that offers this type of program will likely provide the most effective results, though patience is definitely of the utmost importance as with any mental health issue. Though dual diagnosis is common, that doesn’t make it any less tricky—a good treatment program, patience and understanding will definitely help the process.

Feature image Shlomit Wolf