What Is Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Dual diagnosis treatment is an important aspect of the addiction recovery process for many people. This treatment targets substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues simultaneously to increase the overall rate of recovery. 

What Is Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Dual diagnosis treatment is a targeted approach that aims to treat co-occurring psychological disorders that may make it more difficult to address your substance use disorder. 

This type of addiction treatment is often available through evidence-based substance abuse treatment programs that have a trained psychologist or psychiatrist on staff. 

The Connection Between Addiction And Mental Health Disorders

It isn’t an accident that many people who seek addiction treatment are diagnosed with an additional psychiatric disorder. 

Among the 20.3 million American adults who had a diagnosed alcohol or drug addiction in 2017, 37.9% also had a diagnosed mental health condition. 

While it can be difficult to tell which disorder developed first, repeated research demonstrates that substance use disorders and mental health disorders are risk factors for one another.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Approaches

Dual diagnosis treatment is an umbrella term that merely refers to the simultaneous treatment of an addiction and at least one other mental illness.

The exact approach used during your dual diagnosis treatment program can vary based on your individual diagnoses. Psychotherapy and prescription medications are two common tools. 


Psychotherapy is a broad category of evidence-based mental health treatment that includes treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy.

In the case of addiction treatment, both of these approaches address harmful thoughts and behaviors to change the way you view yourself and the way you react to potential triggers. 

Prescription Medication

Prescription medication is often an important part of dual diagnosis treatment plans, because it can be used to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. 

As with any other illness, mental illness sometimes requires a medicated approach to support long-term healing. 

How Do Co-Occurring Disorders Start?

It is difficult to say whether the addiction or the mental health disorder comes first in situations where a dual diagnosis has been made. 

However, there are two common paths of development that are more likely to occur in specific situations.

Self-Medication For Pre-Existing Disorders

In cases where the diagnosed mental illness is likely the result of genetic predisposition or a triggering event, co-occurring drug and alcohol addiction often result from self-medication.

The term self-medication refers to an individual’s attempts to address the symptoms of their mental health disorder by using alcohol or illicit drugs. These are common examples.

Bipolar Disorders

Bipolar disorders are characterized by intense highs and lows. People with untreated bipolar disorder may attempt to self-medicate by using stimulants during depressive episodes.


Schizophrenia is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, confusion, and paranoia.

The condition most frequently manifests in young adults. They are usually in their late teens and may not understand what is happening to them if adults in their lives miss the warning signs.

In these cases, people with untreated schizophrenia may use stimulants or alcohol as a form of escape from their symptoms.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. It isn’t uncommon for people with PTSD to use alcohol or illicit drugs to counter their symptoms.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is most often associated with impulsivity, intense emotions, and dramatic mood swings.

People with BPD may self-medicate through drug or alcohol abuse depending on their symptoms at the time.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

For people with undiagnosed ADHD, illegal stimulants may provide some relief from their symptoms, prompting continued substance abuse as a form of self-medication.

Mental Health Disorders Connected To Chemical Dependency

In cases where your mental health disorder is tied to changes in brain chemistry, it may be more likely that your substance abuse acted as a trigger. 

While it is certainly possible for anxiety or depression to lead to a substance use disorder, they are the diagnoses most commonly associated with chemical dependency. 


Certain stimulants, like cocaine or amphetamines, directly affect the parts of your brain that manage stress. They can produce an exaggerated stress response, including anxiety and paranoia.

Over time, drug use can change the normal behavior of your brain, making your anxiety disorder a more permanent part of your experience. 


Any drug that increases the concentration of serotonin and dopamine in the brain puts you at an increased risk of developing depression. 

When you use an addictive substance like alcohol, opiates, or any other illicit drug, your brain gradually adapts its production of those vital “feel good” hormones to establish balance.

That means that your brain is no longer producing normal amounts of dopamine or serotonin when you aren’t actively using, increasing feelings of depression.

Eating Disorders

In a slightly different vein, disordered eating may result from substance abuse due to the ability of some drugs to suppress or enhance appetite.

FAQs For Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis treatment is an important tool for approximately 40% of people who seek professional addiction treatment at a rehab center.

To help you better understand what dual diagnosis treatment entails, our team has put together a short list of answers to your most common questions. 

What Are The Most Common Therapies For Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Behavioral therapy is the most common approach used at dual diagnosis treatment centers. 

When paired with the appropriate medication, behavioral therapy can help to support long-term recovery.

Keep in mind that treatments may differ somewhat for people who have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or PTSD, as these conditions each have their own unique needs. 

In some cases, temporary hospitalization may be necessary until your mental health disorder is well-managed.

Is Prescription Drug Management A Part Of Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Prescription drug management may be part of your dual diagnosis treatment if you are in an inpatient or residential treatment program

If you are receiving dual diagnosis treatment through an outpatient program, the management of your prescriptions will be up to you and your prescribing healthcare provider. 

What Certifications Are Necessary To Provide Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

To provide proper dual diagnosis treatment, your addiction treatment center will need to have a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist on staff. 

Keep in mind that many states do not allow psychologists to prescribe medications, because they do not have a medical degree. For prescription medication, you will need a licensed psychiatrist. 

What Additional Program Options Provide Support For Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Holistic therapies and support groups are two program options that may provide increased support for dual diagnosis treatment during your drug rehab program.

These treatment options are not replacements for an evidence-based approach; however, they can be valuable for creating community and a better relationship with your mental health. 

Can Dual Diagnosis Treatment Cure My Mental Health Disorder?

Dual diagnosis treatment is a highly effective therapy for mental health disorders, but it doesn’t always offer a cure. 

The majority of mental health disorders are chronic, and you will likely require some level of treatment to manage your disorder for the rest of your life. 

With that said, mental health disorders resulting from the chemical imbalances caused by substance abuse may be cured by long-term sobriety once your brain adjusts. 

What Aftercare Services Are Available For Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

Having a dual diagnosis can increase your risk of relapse if you do not receive proper support from family members and continued behavioral health treatment.

Once you have completed your core addiction treatment program, it is important that you take advantage of your treatment provider’s aftercare services as frequently as you need. 

Common and useful aftercare treatment services for dual diagnoses include individual counseling, support groups, and access to optional sober living programs

Find Substance Use Treatment Today

If you or a loved one has a substance use disorder, call our hotline today to get help. 

Our team can answer your questions and help you find the right treatment center to fulfill all of your recovery needs. 

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These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.


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