It’s estimated that as many as half of bipolar disorder sufferers also struggle with some form of addiction. The extreme mania and depression of bipolar disorder makes it easy to see why turning to drugs or alcohol is a natural choice; warding off the lows and enhancing the highs can be accomplished almost immediately by self-medicating. However, while this type of self-medication may offer relief from symptoms in the present, it may only exacerbate the brain chemistry that makes bipolar disorder so overwhelming in the first place. Co-occurring disorders such as bipolar disorder must be treated in conjunction with the addiction utilizing dual diagnosis treatment.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by alternating periods of extreme mania and extreme depression. When a person is in a manic phase they may appear to be very upbeat, often acting in a way that he or she wouldn’t normally act – overly talkative, hyperactive, sleeping less, over confident, grandiose, engaging in risky behaviors. Conversely, when a person is in a depressed phase he or she may feel down, hopeless (maybe even to the point of feeling suicidal), worthless, restless, fatigued, and like isolating. The periods can last for varying lengths of time, and they can also be mixed, creating a chaotic combination for both the sufferer and those close to him or her.
Using Drugs or Alcohol to Cope with Bipolar Disorder
The very nature of bipolar disorder is the cause of drug use for sufferers. For many, the urge to self-medicate seems to be twofold. They are either trying to relieve the feelings of depression and hopelessness, or trying to enhance and prolong the feelings of mania.
People with undiagnosed bipolar disorder are likely to use drugs or alcohol to deal with the symptoms of depression. Using allows them to escape the feelings that they don’t know how to alleviate any other way. The feelings of despair are enough to make them willing to use whatever means are necessary to make the feelings fade away. One favorable experience with cocaine or another stimulant is often all they need to begin on the path to addiction. Often times, because they have not been diagnosed and properly treated, that positive experience they had with drugs will cause them to continue to seek it out. Even the use of depressants like alcohol allows bipolar sufferers to numb their depression and make life more manageable, at least for a little while.
Once diagnosed with bipolar disorder, some people continue to use drugs or alcohol instead of working with a doctor for proper treatment, either because they don’t want to accept the diagnosis or because addiction may have already set in.
It is also common for people with bipolar disorder to use drugs because they are seeking to bring on an extreme state of mania or hypomania that they have felt before due to their disorder. Using stimulants like cocaine may give them something close to the same feeling as a manic episode does. The extremes of drug use likely seem familiar to bipolar disorder sufferers because it compares to the extreme moods of the disorder, so if they are feeling “flat” they may try to alter that feeling by using drugs.
Treating Addiction and Bipolar Disorder
Treatment for bipolar disorder can greatly reduce symptoms; so much so that a person who once struggled to be able to navigate daily existence (hold a job, maintain relationships, etc.) can enjoy a normal, happy, productive life. A combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are often prescribed and they can be very successful. However, when drugs or alcohol are thrown into the mix, treatment can be completely ineffective. In fact, it can make bipolar symptoms even more extreme as drugs and alcohol effect brain chemistry in a way that intensifies moods.
When addiction afflicts someone with bipolar disorder, both conditions must be treated simultaneously. This school of thought is fairly new; before the early 2000s it was thought that co-occurring disorders should be treated separately. That meant that people suffering from bipolar and addiction were sent to a psychiatric facility for mental health treatment and to a rehab facility to treat the addiction. It is now believed that both disorders can be treated at the same time, and that it is the most effective course of treatment for patients.
Many rehab facilities are able to handle co-occurring disorder patients now. They are equipped to address several mental health issues while also treating the patients’ drug or alcohol problem. Treating the two at the same time is needed to lower the risk of relapse. Without treating both, the rate of relapse is very high. A person with bipolar disorder will learn coping skills and strategies for managing triggers that could potentially cause relapse.
Some of the features to look for in an integrated co-occurring disorder treatment facility are:
Treatment for both disorders provided in one facility
A treatment plan that includes psychiatrists, psychologists, or other addiction professionals who are trained in co-occurring disorder care
The availability of psychiatric medication for bipolar treatment
Relapse prevention and life skills education
Peer support from other co-occurring disorder patients
At Summit Behavioral Health, we offer treatment for individuals who are struggling with addiction and mental illness. Our treatment programs include detox, outpatient, and inpatient programs. If you are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction and have been diagnosed with a mental illness, please contact us today to get started with treatment for both. The road to recovery is right in front of you, all you have to do is take the first step.
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