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Treating co-occurring disorders

Treatment principles

These general principles guide treatment for patients with concurrent substance use and mental health disorders:

Try to deal with the addiction problem first. When patients with alcohol or other substance dependence exhibit symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety or psychosis, assume that the substance is at least part of the problem. Abstinence is the preferred option for most patients with concurrent disorders.

When in doubt, refer the patient to a psychiatrist. When patients have a past history of primary mental health problems, taking a close history will commonly reveal that these disorders underlie their addiction problems. Treatment of the psychiatric disorder may help to facilitate the treatment of an addiction.

Treatment goals

Patients with concurrent disorders need comprehensive case management and an integrated treatment approach that involves both addiction and mental health treatment.

Phase 1: Getting started

Goals include medical withdrawal management, comprehensive assessment and stabilization of the mental illness. The focus is on engagement and motivation.

Phase 2: Addiction treatment

Goals include counselling, education, group therapy, mutual aid (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), family counselling, life skills and behavioural treatments.

Phase 3: Relapse prevention

Goals include mutual aid, addiction aftercare and concurrent mental health case management for long-term follow-up and support.

Pharmacotherapy: General principles

Patients with milder mood or anxiety disorders who are able to achieve abstinence should be monitored for four to 12 weeks. If the disorder persists or worsens over this period, consider pharmacotherapy. However, the psychiatric diagnosis may remain unclear until the patient has abstained for three to six months.

If symptoms are severe or you strongly suspect that the patient has a primary psychiatric disorder, consider beginning pharmacotherapy earlier than four to 12 weeks.

If the patient cannot achieve abstinence and you suspect a primary psychiatric disorder, consider pharmacotherapy.

If possible, avoid benzodiazepines and opioids. Exceptions are:

Benzodiazepines have no role in the long-term management of primary anxiety disorders in patients with alcohol dependence.