Home / Blog / The Challenges of Treating Addiction and Mental Illness 

The Challenges of Treating Addiction and Mental Illness 

Written by O'Connor Professional Group
Published on July 13, 2022

A recent New York Times article addresses the devastating consequences of healthcare systems that are ill-equipped to treat addiction and mental illness  as co-occurring disorders. Recent statistics have documented how pervasive addiction and mental health disorders are in the United States today and how deadly they can be. More people are dying of drug overdoses in the United States than ever before. Last year, overdose fatalities surged to over 100,000 for the first time ever. According to the latest statistics, 2022 is set to surpass this fatal record. On average, about 300 people per day, or around 12 people per hour, have died this year due to an overdose.

treating addiction and mental illness

Barriers to Addiction and Mental Health Disorder Treatment 

It is clear that we are facing an epidemic of addiction and mental health-related issues in the United States. Among the many challenges in overcoming this epidemic are the social stigmatization of addiction and mental health disorders and the separation of addiction and mental health in treatment and care. The first challenge is social. The second challenge is structural. Navigating these challenges is complex, and, as these statistics suggest, they can have deadly consequences.

Fighting Addiction Stigma to get Proper Addiction Treatment

Addiction is a legitimate medical condition, a chronic relapsing brain disorder whose risk factors are now well-known. It is often triggered (or made worse) by mental illness and by social forces such as poverty and childhood trauma. Although medical professionals have understood addiction as a disease for decades (the American Health Association, for example, labeled alcoholism as an illness as early as 1956), it isn’t often treated as such in social scenarios. Because of certain stigmas surrounding addiction, people tend to blame those who suffer from substance abuse for their own choices or lack of willpower instead of recognizing—as medical professionals do—that addiction is itself a disease. Because of these stigmas, many anti-drug curricula in schools focus on resisting peer pressure without paying attention to other driving factors in substance use and abuse, often ignoring the topic of mental health altogether. Further, substance use is often overpoliced and criminalized, considered widely to be a disciplinary problem rather than a medical one with roots in behavioral and mental health.

Treating Addiction and Mental Illness as Co-Occurring Conditions

Substance use and abuse are dangerous for individuals with mental health conditions. On average, people with a mental illness are more likely to become addicted and face a higher risk of overdose and other adverse outcomes. More than half of people who suffer from addiction also suffer from another mental health condition. Often these disorders reinforce one another. For example, someone with anxiety and ADHD might seek out drug use because it offers a temporary reprieve, but then this drug use might end up exacerbating their anxiety and ADHD symptoms. Both disorders amplify one another, creating a vortex that can be difficult to navigate or escape.

Because of the high frequency at which these diseases occur together, addiction and mental health disorders must be managed and treated together. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, medical care professionals, and public health officials alike agree that these disorders are interrelated and require comprehensive attention in treatment and recovery, policy measures within professional medical, psychiatric, and social service systems and programs have lagged behind. Many systems and programs treat people who suffer from mental health and substance use disorders as the exception when they are the rule. 

Bridging the Gap Between Addiction and Mental Illness Treatment

In many states, addiction and mental health services remain largely separate. Clinicians trained in substance abuse issues are not necessarily equipped with the tools to treat a variety of mental health issues and vice versa. This professional specialization can result in placing individuals in a “chicken-or-the-egg” scenario, wherein a primary diagnosis comes first. Is the primary issue addiction, or is it anxiety and depression? By focusing on a primary diagnosis rather than treating addiction and mental health disorders together, some patients might not be able to receive mental health care until they prove they are six months sober. In other cases, some patients might not receive care for substance abuse issues because they demonstrate suicidal ideation, a relatively common experience for those undergoing opioid withdrawal. In these scenarios, treating one issue is done at the expense of the other.

Patients who are fortunate enough to receive forms of treatment from both addiction and mental health specialists often undergo repetitive processes in their recovery. They might be forced to recount the same traumatic stories to both professionals. They might be required to take two drug tests for both. They are responsible for the financial and emotional tolls of both services, not to mention the potential difficulties of navigating two potentially competing or even contradicting strategies for their treatment. Doubling the load for individuals who are already struggling seems hardly a sustainable system for recovery. 

The Effects of Social Determinants of Health on Addiction and Mental Illness

All of this is to say that there are a variety of social and structural factors that have contributed to the rise of overdose deaths in the United States, including inadequate and inaccessible forms of treatment and care. The rise in mental health and substance use disorders has not been met with the comprehensive systems capable of treating such disorders together. One of the major goals of curbing the addiction and mental health epidemic in our country is then to recognize and take seriously the fact that addiction and other mental health disorders are not separate but rather are co-occurring disorders that require integrated care. Someone seeking treatment for more than one disorder—say, PTSD and alcoholism, or anxiety and opioid addiction—should be able to address both issues in an integrated manner, ideally in the same place with the same professional. However, the many social and structural impediments make it challenging to navigate the complex behavioral healthcare systems related to addiction and mental illness, and therefore, it becomes difficult to receive the kinds of integrated care for sustainable recovery. 

Substance use and mental health disorders are difficult for those people who suffer from them, but the path to recovery should not also have to be as difficult. The O’Connor Professional Group helps simplify the complexity of the behavioral healthcare system, attempting to bridge the gaps in treatment of co-occurring disorders by customizing services based on an individual’s specific holistic needs. Because it is often difficult to understand what behavioral health options and services are available, individuals with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders may come across these challenges. Our concierge model is designed to break down the barriers in healthcare systems. By coordinating and facilitating sustainable and individualized recovery programs, we are able to ensure that each individual finds the proper and comprehensive care they need. Contact us today for a consultation.

treating addiction and mental illness

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