Drug and alcohol abuse remain a prevalent problem in our society today. The opioid crisis continues to reach epidemic proportions, and persistent efforts are being made to tackle this ongoing problem.

However, one thing that often seems to be overlooked is the fact that substance use disorders are frequently accompanied by the presence of mental illness.

This can stem from both sides. An individual who is struggling with an addiction to substances may begin to develop symptoms of a mental health disorder. For example, someone who has an addiction to opioids may begin to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression as a direct result of their drug use. Conversely, someone who is suffering from a mental illness may turn to the use of substances as a means of self-medicating.

In either instance, the result is the onset of co-occurring conditions, clinically referred to as dual diagnosis.

We must be highly cognizant of the self-medicating aspect that can tie mental illness and addiction together.

There are individuals who do not necessarily realize that they are suffering from a mental health disorder, but they are experiencing distressing symptoms and do not know how to appropriately manage or cope with them. They may then find that using alcohol, opioids, or other types of substances works to alleviate some of those symptoms. In other words, when they use drugs or alcohol, they start to feel better. But this relief is temporary, and the use of substances is ultimately going to exacerbate their symptoms and cause their suffering to intensify.

Additionally, the longer they use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, the more likely it is that they will have to increase the amount that they consume or the frequency with which they consume in order to achieve the desired effects. This can then result in the development of a physical dependency on the substance.

Taking this fact into account, it is imperative that we recognize the great need for individuals who are battling these concerns to receive dual diagnosis treatment. Comprehensive care that includes therapeutic interventions that address both mental illness and substance use disorders is critical in helping individuals achieve true healing.

Treatment facilities that offer care in a manner that addresses mental health disorders and addiction simultaneously will have the most positive impact on an individual’s recovery.

As part of an initiative to make dual diagnosis treatment more easily accessible to those in need, Acadia Healthcare has partnered with Saint Thomas Health in Nashville in the development of a free-standing psychiatric hospital that will offer co-occurring disorder treatment. Slated to open in 2020, Saint Thomas Health will offer care that is targeted at addressing both mental illness and addiction concerns in one setting.

As we take steps to bring awareness to the impact that mental illness has on the opioid epidemic and on addiction in general, we are able to combat the challenges our communities are facing in identifying the need for proper treatment. The more aware individuals are as to the true nature of their suffering, the more assistance we are able to provide them.

Through education, awareness, and partnerships, we can make great strides in improving behavioral healthcare and in offering more benefit to those in need.

Michael V. Genovese, MD, JD is the Chief Medical Officer for Acadia Healthcare.

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