NAMI and Co-occurring disorders

I’m back from my last chance to go to the High Sierra before summer’s over.  Backpacking is, for me, a very relaxing form of recreation because it involves three things: walking, eating, and sleeping. Not too much else. Oh, right– looking at stuff. Specifically, nothing made by people, other than the footprints on the trail. No thinking about paying bills, doing chores, meeting appointments, dealing with electronic media– very sanity-provoking for me.

But before I left, I had a chance to attend a local NAMI– (National Alliance on Mental Illness; ) meeting as a guest. Having specialty background in co-occurring disorders, I was quiet until after a couple of the members had checked in. Then I mentioned some numbers, according to SAMHSA: of the people who have both mental illness and addiction  53% will not get help for either problem. approximately 8.5% will get help for both problems. 34.1 percent will be treated for mental health problems only and 4.1 percent will get treatment for substance abuse only.  At the small meeting I was attending, all the families had a member with both mental illness and addiction. To aggregate the figures in another way, if you’re in this group of people with co-occurring disorders there’s a 42.1% chance you’ll get some mental health help and there’s a 12.6% chance you’ll get help for your addiction. I’d say that’s insane.

Among the attendees, no one knew much about addictive disease– that it has a strong genetic component, that it is a brain disorder: that there are medications that are helpful in some cases and that treatment consists of more than sending people to 12-step meetings (although there is a very robust literature on the increase in recovery rates with 12-step attendance).  The group was small and we spent an extra half hour after the meeting was due to officially end talking about topics related to addiction. The general reaction was, “Wow! I never knew this, and I’m glad I’m learning it now.” 

The clinical consensus is that people with co-occurring disorders have a tough road if they get help for only one of the problems. And estimates of how many people have both problems at the same time go as high as four percent of the adult population.

In some circles, people still hold to the outdated belief that “If you successfully treat the mental illness, the drinking (drug use) will go away,” or the equally outdated belief “If you stop the drinking (drug use), the mental problems will go away.” All the research points to the fact that each  problem is a problem in and of itself. You have to treat both at the same time. To do otherwise would be like your doctor treating only your diabetes but not your lung cancer. You wouldn’t want that, would you? Unfortunately, news doesn’t travel at the same speed to all quarters of the health care world. So do your part; tell a friend. Get help for ALL your problems.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, mental health, Recovery, stigma of mental illness. Bookmark the permalink.

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