As stories about the mental health crisis and opioid epidemic have dominated the news and sparked conversations on social media this summer, one important point has been overlooked. The two topics are not exclusive of each other.
Demi Lovato, the popular singer and songwriter reminded us of that this week when she was hospitalized for a reported overdose. Although the cause of her hospitalization has not yet been confirmed, it sparked a national conversation about substance abuse and the role of mental illness.
While Lovato has never shied away from the public about her battle with both substance abuse and mental illness, millions of others continue to suffer privately across America. They struggle day in and day out with the co-existence of mental illness and substance abuse, a condition more commonly recognized as co-occurring disorder.
Co-occurring disorders can develop when someone dealing with a mental health condition like depression or bipolar disease turns to drugs or alcohol as a way to ease the relentless inner turmoil they experience on a daily basis. And over time, this act of self-medication can lead to a substance abuse issue while their mental illness remains untreated.
In many cases, people are diagnosed with either mental illness or substance abuse, but not both. This is often because recognizing a co-occurring disorder is tricky as symptoms of both diseases can be presented with varying degrees of severity. The drug or alcohol abuse may overshadow the mental illness or ailments from both conditions may overlap, masking one or the other.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 7.9 million adults in the United States had co-occurring disorders in 2014.
Unfortunately, in the absence of proper care, those with undiagnosed and untreated co-occurring disorders can quickly become vulnerable and suffer consequences like homelessness, incarceration and suicide.
We need to do better.
As a nation we need to become better educated on mental illness and substance abuse. We must go beyond debating the use of Narcan and the pros and cons of funding mental health programs to find real solutions. We need to seek ways to:
- Raise awareness for co-occurring symptoms.
- Remove the shame for those debilitated by substance abuse and mental illness.
- Identify support for those with mental illness so they can avoid reaching out to alcohol and drugs as an ineffective way of coping.
- Provide affordable and accessible treatment programs for those in need.
- Integrated treatment that addresses both the substance abuse and mental illness simultaneously is making a positive difference in the lives of many struggling with co-occurring disorder.
It is important to understand, however, that recovery is not linear and ongoing support to manage both conditions through a continuum of care is key to making a meaningful change. And, like Lovato, who is said to have sought recovery treatment in the past, relapse remains an oftentimes common situation. In those instances, individuals should be accepted, encouraged and treated compassionately as they continue their journey toward recovery.
You can be a lifeline for someone suffering from co-occurring disorder. If you suspect someone you know is displaying symptoms, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment options. This is a free, confidential service offering treatment referrals and information for families or individuals struggling with mental illness and substance use disorders. You can also find treatment facilities and programs in the United States at Samhsa.gov.
Laura Mueller is Director of Admissions of Rose Hill Center, which provides a residential rehabilitation program for adults with mental illness.
This piece appeared in The Oakland Press on July 26th, 2018.