What is a Dual Diagnosis?

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Recognized as a concept more than three decades ago, dual diagnosis refers to individuals who experience both a mental illness and an addiction (substance use disorder) at the same time.

The support of individuals with dual diagnosis is a major challenge for frontline mental health services. This guide explores the following issues:

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  • What is dual diagnosis?
  • What are some common dual diagnosis examples?
  • What is the best method of treating dual diagnosis?
  • How can you connect with a dual diagnosis program in California?

Dual Diagnosis Definition

Dual diagnosis refers to the simultaneous presence of both a mental health condition and a substance use disorder. A dual diagnosis mental health and addiction is also known as co-occurring disorder. Dual disorders do not constitute a specific diagnosis but are instead a combination of individual diagnoses.

 Mental health disorders encompass a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Substance use disorders can involve alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications. When these two conditions coexist, the impact of the co-occurring conditions can be exacerbated. Untreated mental health issues can contribute to the worsening of substance use problems, while increased substance use can intensify mental health challenges. This creates a detrimental cycle in which both conditions influence and amplify each other.

Examples of Dual Diagnosis

To illuminate the diverse nature of dual diagnosis, we’ll highlight three clear examples of co-occurring conditions, each involving a different mental health disorder and substance use disorder:

  • Major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder and opioid use disorder
  • Bipolar disorder and cocaine use disorder

 These examples highlight the intricate relationship between these conditions and emphasize the importance of tailored treatment approaches that address both aspects of dual diagnosis. By addressing the underlying mental health disorder and the substance use disorder, individuals can find a more sustainable path toward lasting recovery and improved overall well-being.

Major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder

An individual diagnosed with major depressive disorder may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their depressive symptoms. However, alcohol use can inflame the symptoms of depression over time, leading to a vicious cycle of self-medication and worsening mental health. In this case, dual diagnosis treatment would involve addressing both the underlying depressive disorder through therapy and medication, as well as providing support and interventions to address the alcohol use disorder (alcoholism).

Generalized anxiety disorder and opioid use disorder

Someone with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) may struggle with intense worry and anxiety on a daily basis. They may turn to opioids as a means of temporarily alleviating their anxiety symptoms. Regrettably, the use of opioids can lead to dependence and addiction, further exacerbating their anxiety. Dual diagnosis treatments for this individual would involve addressing the underlying anxiety disorder through therapy and potentially medication, while also addressing the opioid use disorder through a combination of detoxification, behavioral therapy, and relapse prevention strategies.

Bipolar disorder and cocaine use disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, including periods of mania and depression. Individuals with this disorder may turn to substances like cocaine during manic episodes to intensify their feelings of euphoria. That said, cocaine use can trigger or worsen manic symptoms and disrupt the stability of their mood. Dual diagnosis treatment for this person would involve stabilizing their mood through mood-stabilizing medications and psychotherapy, while also addressing their cocaine use disorder through detoxification, counseling, and relapse prevention strategies.

An image of a professional filling out a form, representing a dual diagnosis

Dual Diagnosis Statistics

These dual diagnosis statistics are sourced from NSDUH 2021 published by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

  • Each year, approximately one in five U.S. adults, accounting for 20% of the population, will experience a mental health condition.
  • Among these individuals, one in 20 adults, or 5% of the population, will experience SMIs (severe mental illnesses) characterized by significant functional impairment.
  • Surprisingly, only around 10% of individuals with mental health conditions seek or plan to seek treatment, indicating a substantial treatment gap.
  • Over 40 million adults in the United States, representing more than 10% of the population, have at least one addiction. Addictions encompass a range of substances, including drugs, prescription medications, alcohol, and tobacco.
  • In 2021, a significant proportion of adults – specifically one in three – received a diagnosis of either a substance use disorder or a mental health disorder. This shows the substantial overlap and co-occurrence of these conditions.
  • Among young adults aged 18 to 25, 46% reported having a diagnosable addiction or mental health condition, demonstrating the vulnerability of this age group to these challenges.
  • Additionally, 13.5% of young adults met the criteria for both a mental illness and a substance use disorder, underscoring the significance of addressing dual diagnosis among young individuals.
  • Co-occurring disorders were found to be most prevalent among multiracial adults in the United States. This shows that culturally sensitive and inclusive approaches to dual diagnosis treatment may ensure more equitable access and outcomes for all individuals.

Best Treatment for Dual Diagnosis

In dual diagnosis treatment, you will receive comprehensive care for both your mental health condition and substance use disorder simultaneously. Collaborating with your healthcare provider, you will gain an understanding of how these disorders interact with each other, enabling you to determine the most effective treatment approach.

 To achieve recovery in dual diagnosis, it is vital to discontinue the use of addictive substances first. For many people, this process begins with supervised medical detoxification. In an inpatient setting, healthcare professionals will closely monitor you around the clock for up to a week, assisting you in gradually tapering off the substance and providing interventions to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

 Depending on various factors, your dual diagnosis treatment may involve behavioral therapy, medication, support groups, or inpatient care.

 Effective behavioral therapies for co-occurring disorders include:

  • CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy): CBT equips you with skills to cope with and modify ineffective patterns of thinking.
  • DBT (dialectical behavior therapy): DBT helps reduce self-harming behaviors, such as drug use, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts or actions. This form of talk therapy may also improve distress tolerance and emotional regulation.
  • Medication: Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication for either or both of your conditions. Certain medications can help alleviate symptoms associated with both aspects of a dual diagnosis. 
  • Support groups: Engaging in support groups can provide invaluable emotional and social support to help you maintain sobriety. Peers within these groups have walked a similar path and can share their experiences, answer questions, and offer practical advice for navigating everyday challenges in recovery from dual diagnosis.
  • Inpatient care: If you are experiencing a pattern of substance dependence alongside a mental health condition, attending a dual diagnosis treatment center may be beneficial. These facilities provide comprehensive medical and mental health care, including medication, therapy, and supportive interventions.
An image of California Detox, an addiction treatment facility in Laguna Beach, CA.

Get Dual Diagnosis Treatment at California Detox

At California Detox in Southern California, we specialize in providing comprehensive treatment for dual diagnosis, addressing both addictions and mental health conditions with coordinated and integrated interventions. Our evidence-based rehab centers are dedicated to promoting whole-body recovery and are conveniently located in Laguna Beach, CA.

 With our supervised medical detox program, we ensure the safest and most comfortable path to detoxification and ongoing recovery. Once your system is free from addictive substances, you can transition directly into a 30-day inpatient program.

 Our treatment programs incorporate a variety of evidence-based treatments like medication-assisted treatment, talk therapy, group therapy, individual counseling, family therapy, holistic therapies, and comprehensive aftercare planning.

 When transitioning from active addiction to sustainable recovery, you can trust California Detox to provide the expert care and support you need. Contact our admissions team at (949) 694-8305 to take the first step towards a brighter future.


A dual diagnosis is given to individuals who suffer from both a mental health disorder and substance use disorder (addiction).
An example of dual diagnosis would be a case where someone suffers from both bipolar disorder and substance use disorder (addiction).


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