For people with dual disorders (also known as “dual diagnosis”), the attempt to obtain professional help can be bewildering and confusing. They may have problems arising within themselves as a result of their psychiatric and alcohol and other drug (AOD) use disorders as well as problems of external origin that derive from the conflicts, limitations, and clashing philosophies of the mental health and addiction treatment systems. For example, internal problems such as frustration, denial, or depression may hinder their ability to recognize the need for help and diminish their ability to ask for help. A typical external problem might be the confusion experienced when individuals need services but lack knowledge about the different goals and processes of various types of available services. Other problems of external origin may be very fundamental, such as the inability to pay for child care services or the lack of transportation to the only available outpatient program.
Historically, when patients in alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment exhibited vivid and acute psychiatric symptoms, the symptoms were either: 1) unrecognized, 2) observed but misdescribed as toxicity or “acting-out behavior,” or 3) accurately identified, prompting the patients to be discharged or referred to a mental health program. Virtually the same process occurred for patients in mental health treatment who exhibited vivid and acute symptoms of AOD use disorders.
Mislabeling, rejecting, failing to recognize, or automatically transferring patients with dual disorders can result in inadequate treatment, with patients falling between the cracks of treatment systems. The symptoms of psychiatric and AOD use disorders often fluctuate in intensity and frequency. Current symptom presentation may reflect a short-term change in the course of long-term dual disorders. Thus, even when patients receive traditional professional help, treatment may address only selected aspects of their overall problem unless treatment is coordinated among services including AOD, mental health, social, and medical programs.
As a result, the treatment system itself may be a stumbling block for some people attempting to receive ongoing, appropriate, and comprehensive treatment for combined psychiatric and AOD use disorders. Thus, treatment services for patients with dual disorders must be sensitive to both the individual’s and the treatment system’s impediments to the initiation and continuation of treatment.
Treatment Systems: Mental Health, Addiction, And Medical
People with dual disorders who want to engage in the treatment process (or who need to do so) frequently encounter not one but several treatment systems, each having its own strengths and weaknesses. These treatment systems have different clinical approaches.
The Mental Health System
Actually, there is no single mental health system, although most States have a set of public mental health centers. Rather, mental health services are provided by a variety of mental health professionals including psychiatrists; psychologists; clinical social workers; clinical nurse specialists; other therapists and counselors including marriage, family, and child counselors (MFCCs); and paraprofessionals.
These mental health personnel work in a variety of settings, using a variety of theories about the treatment of specific psychiatric disorders. Different types of mental health professionals (for example, social workers and MFCCs) have differing perspectives; moreover, practitioners within a given group often use different approaches.
A major strength of the mental health system is the comprehensive array of services offered, including counseling, case management, partial hospitalization, inpatient treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and a variety of residential programs. The mental health system has a relatively large variety of treatment settings. These settings are designed to provide treatment services for patients with acute, subacute, and long-term symptoms. Acute services are provided by personnel in emergency rooms and hospital units of several types and by crisis-line personnel, outreach teams, and mental health law commitment specialists. Subacute services are provided by hospitals, day treatment programs, mental health center programs, and several types of individual practitioners. Long-term settings include mental health centers, residential units, and practitioners’ offices. Clinicians vary with regard to academic degrees, styles, expertise, and training. Another strength of the mental health system is the growing recognition at all system levels of the role of case management as a means to individualize and coordinate services and secure entitlements.
Medication is more often used in psychiatric treatment than in addiction treatment, especially for severe disorders. Medications used to treat psychiatric symptoms include psychoactive and nonpsychoactive medications. Psychoactive medications cause an acute change in mood, thinking, or behavior, such as sedation, stimulation, or euphoria.
Psychoactive medications (such as benzodiazepines) prescribed to the average patient with psychiatric problems are generally taken in an appropriate fashion and pose little or no risk of abuse or addiction. In contrast, the use of psychoactive medications by patients with a personal or family history of an AOD use disorder is associated with a high risk of abuse or addiction.
Some medications used in psychiatry that have mild psychoactive effects (such as some tricyclic antidepressants with mild sedative effects) appear to be misused more by patients with an AOD disorder than by others. Thus, a potential pitfall is prescribing psychoactive medications to a patient with psychiatric problems without first determining whether the individual also has an AOD use disorder.
While most clinicians in the mental health system generally have expertise in a biopsychosocial approach to the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of psychiatric disorders, some lack similar skills and knowledge about the specific drugs of abuse, the biopsychosocial processes of abuse and addiction, and AOD treatment, recovery, and relapse. Similarly, AOD treatment professionals may have a thorough understanding of AOD abuse treatment but not psychiatric treatment.