Dual diagnosis, also known as co-occurring disorders, is a term used to describe someone who has both a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder simultaneously. A myriad of disorders typically coincide with substance abuse, but the most common are eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Because there are so many different types of dual diagnosis prognosis, having this diagnosis is fairly common. About 17 million US adults with a mental illness also struggle with a substance abuse disorder in 2020.  Although it is typically unknown whether drugs or alcohol are used as a form of self-medication because of a mental illness or the drugs or alcohol cause a mental illness, it is known that mind-altering substances have a profound effect on perpetuating a mental illness disorder. As this diagnosis is complex to treat, having trained medical guidance along with possible behavioral therapy and support groups is essential when treating both disorders.

Common Mental Illness Disorders and Addiction

Frequently, when one suffers from a mental illness (knowingly or unknowingly), they may seek to self-medicate through drugs or alcohol. As many mental illnesses can trigger substance abuse, it is vital to seek professional medical health when there is a concern of mental illness, especially if it runs in one’s family. 

Some common mental illness disorders that can trigger addiction are:

  • Eating Disorders: typically, drugs that suppress appetite are utilized when someone suffers from an underlying eating disorder.
  • Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): this disorder makes it hard for a person to focus and control impulsive behaviors. Impulsiveness can translate to a strong urge to self-medicate without considering the consequences. Furthermore, some medications prescribed to help treat ADHD can be habit-forming and the gateway to using harder drugs in the future. 
  • Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar is marked by extreme changes in behavior, from mania (high energy) to depressive states (low energy), so it can be tempting for someone suffering from this disorder to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. However, substance abuse only temporarily masks the symptoms and can cause greater turmoil to the user. 
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  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): someone with BPD has a difficult time regulating emotions. As with all mental disorders, this can lead to abusing alcohol or drugs to “numb” out the often intense emotions experienced by the person with this disorder.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A person with GAD has excessive and persistent worry about numerous things, including but not limited to: money, health, family, and work. Because several anxiety-lessening medications are habit-forming, someone with GAD has a higher chance of becoming addicted to the medications prescribed to them.
  • Depression: Depression is a serious mental health disorder that can drive someone to abuse drugs or alcohol to feel temporarily “numb.” A major concern with abuse and depression is that drugs can ignite depression in people, especially in the detox phase of coming off the substance. This, in turn, causes depression to worsen in the presence of drugs or alcohol.
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  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This disorder is marked by chronic, uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors. To turn off the obsessive, compulsive thinking, someone may be inclined to “silence” their thoughts through drugs or alcohol.
  • Schizophrenia: This disorder affects someone’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the point that it can be debilitating for the sufferer. Many turn to mind-altering substances to escape their disabling “internal reality.”
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): this psychiatric disorder causes someone to have intense, disturbing thoughts or nightmares related to their trauma long after the traumatic event has ended. Like all previously mentioned mental illness disorders, someone with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb those painful feelings.

Symptoms That One Needs Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Whether someone is suffering from substance abuse or a mental health illness (or both), the sufferer must seek help. Some warning signs of a co-occurring disorder include: 

  • A sudden change in mood or behavior
  • Erratic and impulsive behaviors
  • Extreme mood swings 
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Mentions of suicide or suicidal behavior
  • Neglecting health and hygiene
  • Struggling to maintain daily tasks and responsibilities
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As this is a minuscule list, and each person can have varying warning signs depending on their condition, one must speak to a mental health professional to rule out any co-occurring disorders. Because the likelihood of returning to substance abuse is much higher when only one disorder is addressed, approaching recovery holistically can minimize the risk of addiction returning.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Since dual diagnosis treatment is approached differently than solely treating a mental health disorder or addiction, it is paramount to one’s recovery that they seek treatment that specializes in co-occurring disorders. Often, the most beneficial recovery option is to go to an inpatient drug rehab center because of the high level of expertise and attention that these centers provide.

Furthermore, with the separation from distractions and temptations for the user and 24/7 medical staff on site, the person suffering from a co-occurring disorder can rest assured that they are being taken care of in a safe environment, allowing them a chance to transition from addiction to sobriety more easily and fluidly. It is essential to note that it is highly warned against attempting self-treatment for a co-occurring disorder. This disorder is complex and needs professional help for there to be a chance of long-term effectiveness. 

If you suspect you have a co-occurring disorder or have been diagnosed with one, the time to get help is now. Do not delay seeking treatment if you think you are suffering from one or both disorders. You deserve to be on a path of freedom from the mental, physical, and emotional bondage of a mental illness and substance abuse disorder. 



Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Substance Use Disorders | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Published May 2020. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Common-with-Mental-Illness/Substance-Use-Disorders
  2. National Eating Disorders. Warning Signs and Symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Teens: What You Need to Know. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Published 2021. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-in-children-and-teens-what-you-need-to-know
  4. WebMD. Bipolar Disorder. WebMD. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.webmd.com/bipolar-disorder/default.htm
  5. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Borderline personality disorder | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Published December 2017. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Borderline-Personality-Disorder
  6.  Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
  7. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Published February 2018. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression
  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Published October 2019. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd
  9. National Institute of Mental Health. Schizophrenia. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Published April 2022. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/schizophrenia
  10. Torres F. Psychiatry.org – What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Published August 2020. Accessed July 4, 2022. https://psychiatry.org:443/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed July 4, 2022

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