Co-Occurring Disorders: Addiction and Bipolar Disorder

It is difficult enough to come to terms with addiction in our lives. But sometimes, that is not all that is keeping us from experiencing a high quality of life. Some of us have a co-occurring disorder, also known as dual diagnosis. The most common dual diagnosis is an addiction and bipolar disorder. If we treat only the addiction, then the bipolar disorder will likely impact our recovery and vice versa.

Stigma: A Stumbling Block to Treatment

There is plenty of stigma about addiction. Even in the year 2019, movies, the media, and social media often paint a very denigrating picture of people who struggle with addiction. However, perhaps even more crippling is the stigma around mental illness. Even for people who don’t place immediate judgment when we tell them we have bipolar disorder, depression, or some other mental illness, there is little education about mental illness or how to help someone struggling with it. People just don’t know what to say or do to help.

Despite the fact that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that as many as one in five people suffers from a mental illness, there is still more fear than understanding amongst the general public. That changes every time we read or learn more about mental illness and every time we are willing to speak up for ourselves and our loved ones and educate others. Bipolar disorder isn’t a mark of shame, it’s a serious medical condition that impacts “normal” people like you and me.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which the person experiences periods of both mania and depression, or “highs” and “lows.” These periods can last from a few days to weeks, months or even years. There can also be periods of “normalcy.”

Studies still continue as to exactly what goes on in the brain to cause the chemical imbalance which impacts our mood and behavior so significantly. A simple version of what happens in the brain is that serotonin levels are not properly regulated, which then inhibits normal function. Much like diabetes is a disease where so much is impacted by the body’s inability to produce or regulate insulin, bipolar disorder is where normal brain function is impacted by the inability to regulate serotonin.

There are different types of bipolar disorder, based on types of manic and depressed episodes. Everyone is different, some people suffer from chronic and debilitating depression, with only short spells of normalcy or some level of mania. Some people hardly have any depression, others never have a true manic episode, but rather experience hypomania.

Hypomania is a period of time that can span from days to weeks in which the mood is elevated, there is less need for sleep, and these episodes are often filled with high productivity. However, there are often impulsive or risk-taking behaviors, especially spending or unusual sexual activity. However, some people are more irritable and angry when they have hypomania. A true manic episode is similar but more extreme, and often people exhibit a greater distance from reality and there is a higher risk of harm to self or others. For example, some people may think they can fly or do things that aren’t physically possible.

Depression is a little more well known and is more common within bipolar disorder. In fact, many patients are diagnosed with depression only, without realizing that the times that they felt a little too good were actually hypomanic episodes. This is a challenge because treatments for depression can actually worsen symptoms of bipolar disorder. Depression is more than just feeling sad, in fact, many people don’t feel anything at all. It is typically a period of time for more than a few days in which the person feels lethargic, tired, experiences less interest in things, and more. It is a physical condition, not just an emotional reaction to life events, even if some depression is brought on by outside triggers.

How Common is an Addiction and Bipolar Dual Diagnosis?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), up to 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder will develop a substance use disorder in their lifetime. People with co-occurring bipolar and addiction have the additional challenges of being less likely to respond to treatment and suffering from increased bipolar symptoms, such as higher highs and lower lows. Frighteningly, those of us with co-occurring bipolar disorder and addiction show more instances of hospitalizations and suicide attempts as well.

The most frustrating part of dual diagnosis is that so many of the symptoms are overlapping, so it takes a trained professional to properly make this diagnosis and provide the appropriate treatment. Both substances and treatment can worsen both the bipolar disorder and the addiction, and one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder is denial, which makes it even harder to get help.

The good news is that there is a solution. For someone battling on both fronts, there are places who understand and can help with co-occurring addiction and bipolar disorder. Enlight has the experience and support needed to help. If you or your loved one believe that there might be more than just addiction going on, call us today at (805) 719-7954 to speak to one of our admissions experts.

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