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Finding Hope for People Suffering From Mental Illness and Addiction

Phoo: Courtesy of Marc Olivier Jodoin

Elinore F. McCance-Katz

Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The presence of both substance abuse and mental illness is known as a co-occurring disorder.  Left untreated, this condition poses a serious threat to an individual’s quality of life, including increased risk of family problems, frequent drug relapse, numerous hospitalizations, unemployment, homelessness, serious physical illness and death.


The reality of undiagnosed co-occurring disorders

This is an important public health challenge. In 2016, more than 8 million American adults struggled with co-occurring disorders, including 2.5 million who had a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Many more are undiagnosed. Less than half of those living with co-occurring disorders are getting treatment. It is critical that we get the message out: early detection and treatment can improve outcomes and quality of life for those with co-occurring disorders.

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Co-occurring disorders can be complex and individual experiences can vary. A diagnosis is often the result of a combination of biological, psychological, environmental and social factors. Some individuals with a co-occurring diagnosis may use illegal substances or misuse prescription drugs or alcohol to self-medicate or cope with their mental health illnesses.Others may develop mental illnesses as a result of their substance abuse.Regardless of the presentation of a co-occurring disorder, it is important to openly discuss these issues with a provider and seek treatment.


Seeking care for mental illness and substance abuse

An integrated approach that treats both conditions simultaneously is the most effective.Individuals receive one consistent message about substance abuse and mental health treatment. Providers who offer these services specialize in treating both mental illness and substance abuse. They understand the complexity of interactions between disorders and are trained in the skills necessary to provide the appropriate treatment.

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As part of care, many patients with a co-occurring disorder require medication to address their mental health symptoms and treat a substance use disorder. If appropriate, providers may also ask to include loved ones and friends as part of the treatment approach. Social and family support can help promote positive treatment and recovery outcomes.

Research-based practices for effective, integrated treatment of co-occurring disorders are being implemented in communities across America.  People seeking help and their families can receive the most effective treatment by making sure their treatment provider knows about both their substance use and mental health issues.  Ask your provider how they will work to address both conditions in an integrated way.  You can also find help and treatment at the National Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator or by calling the National Helpline at 800-662-4357.

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