5 Tips for Supporting a Loved One With a 'Dual Diagnosis'


Mental illness affects around 57.7 million American adults every single year. In addition, more than 23.5 million people are treated every year for drug or alcohol abuse. When addiction and another mental illness occurs in the same person, it is referred to as a “dual diagnosis.” This can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms of addiction and other mental illnesses often overlap. A dual diagnosis can be difficult to treat.

Here are some tips for helping a loved one deal with a dual diagnosis:

1. Forget everything you think you know.

Drug addiction and other mental illnesses are surrounded by a strong negative stigma, which is propagated by the media’s portrayal of individuals with mental illness. The most important thing you can do to help a friend or family member with a dual diagnosis is to forget everything you think you know about mental illness. Take the time to educate yourself about mental illness and drug addiction from accurate sources so you know how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness.

Also, don’t assume you know anything about the individual experience of your friend or loved one. Mental illness and addiction affect everyone differently.

2. Small gestures can mean the world.

You don’t have to spend all your time and energy helping your friends with their dual diagnosis, though you might want to. Small gestures — even something as simple as a greeting card or a text — can mean the world to someone who is dealing with a dual diagnosis. Little gestures can help such individuals remain grounded and centered in reality when the world stops making sense.

3. Be there but don’t judge.

It’s estimated up to 53 percent of drug abusers and 37 percent of alcohol abusers also have at least one other serious mental illness. That’s a lot for someone to cope with, but you can help. Sometimes all you can do for someone who’s making their way through a dual diagnosis is to be there and make sure they know you’re there for them. Be a shoulder to cry on or whatever they need. Whatever you do though, please leave your judgment at the door. People who live with a dual diagnosis may find it hard to do simple things like remember to eat and their diagnosis will affect their entire lifestyle. Judgment will probably come from plenty of sources around them, it doesn’t need to come from you as well.

4. Tough love doesn’t always work.

Interventions and the tough love approach might work in some cases, but for individuals with a dual diagnosis, it’s can drive them away or drive them to more destructive behavior. We’re tempted to try to fix things when there’s nothing we can do to change them. Don’t make it harder for your friends or loved ones to make their way through the world by trying to always treat them with tough love.

5. Don’t expect a cure.

While addiction and other mental illnesses can be improved by treatment, there probably won’t be a blanket cure. Recovery is usually a lifelong process. It’s tempting to look for a cure or offer up homeopathic remedies you read about on the internet, but treatment and lifelong recovery are the best ways to effectively manage a dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis might seem like a hurdle impossible to jump, but if someone you love has received one, the best thing you can do for them is just be there. No matter what treatment plans they choose or steps they take, your support can mean the world to them.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Thinkstock photo via Archv.

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