Evidence-Based Reviews

Real-world challenges in managing ‘dual diagnosis’ patients

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False positives are more likely when patients seeking treatment for non-SUDs don’t disclose active drug use, even when asked. Both patients and their treating clinicians may also be prone to underestimating the significant potential for morbidity associated with SUDs, such that substance-induced symptoms may be misattributed to a dual disorder. Diagnostic questioning and thorough chart review that includes careful assessment of whether psychiatric symptoms preceded the onset of substance use, and whether they persisted in the setting of extended sobriety, is therefore paramount for minimizing false positives when assessing for dual diagnoses.18,21 Likewise, random urine toxicology testing can be invaluable in verifying claims regarding sobriety.

Another factor that can complicate diagnosis is that there are often considerable secondary gains (eg, disability income, hospitalization, housing, access to prescription medications, and mitigation of the blame and stigma associated with addiction) associated with having a dual disorder as opposed to having “just” a SUD. As a result, for some patients, obtaining a non-SUD diagnosis can be highly incentivized.22,23 Clinicians must therefore be savvy about the high potential for malingering, embellishment, and mislabeling of symptoms when conducting diagnostic interviews. For example, in assessing for psychosis, the frequent endorsement of “hearing voices” in patients with SUDs often results in a diagnosis of schizophrenia or unspecified psychotic disorder,22 despite the fact that this symptom can occur during substance intoxication and withdrawal, is well documented among people without mental illness as well as those with non-psychotic disorders,24 and can resolve without medications or with non-antipsychotic pharmacotherapy.25

When assessing for dual disorders, diagnostic false positives and false negatives can both contribute to inappropriate treatment and unrealistic expectations for recovery, and therefore underscore the importance of careful diagnostic assessment. Even with diligent assessment, however, diagnostic clarity can prove elusive due to inadequate sobriety, inconsistent reporting, and poor memory.26 Therefore, for patients with known SUDs but diagnostic uncertainty about a dual disorder, the work-up should include a trial of prospective observation, with completion of appropriate detoxification, throughout a 1-month period of sobriety and in the absence of psychiatric medications, to determine if there are persistent symptoms that would justify a dual diagnosis. In research settings, such observations have revealed that most of depressive symptoms among alcoholics who present for substance abuse treatment resolve after a month of abstinence.27 A similar time course for resolution has been noted for anxiety, distress, fatigue, and depressive symptoms among individuals with cocaine dependence.28 These findings support the guideline established in DSM-IV that symptoms persisting beyond a month of sobriety “should be considered to be manifestations of an independent, non-substance-induced mental disorder,”29 while symptoms occurring within that month may well be substance-induced. Unfortunately, in real-world clinical practice, and particularly in outpatient settings, it can be quite difficult to achieve the requisite period of sobriety for reliable diagnosis, and patients are often prematurely prescribed medications (eg, an antidepressant, antipsychotic, or mood stabilizer) that can confound the cause of symptomatic resolution. Such prescriptions are driven by compelling pressures from patients to relieve their acute suffering, as well as the predilection of some clinicians to give patients “the benefit of doubt” in assessing for dual diagnoses. However, whether an inappropriate diagnosis or a prescription for an unnecessary medication represents a benefit is debatable at best.


A third real-world challenge in managing patients with dual disorders involves optimizing pharmacotherapy. Unfortunately, because patients with SUDs often are excluded from clinical trials, evidence-based guidance for patients with dual disorders is lacking. In addition, medications for both CODs often remain inaccessible to patients with dual disorders for 3 reasons:

  • SUDs negatively impact medication adherence among patients with dual disorders, who sometimes point out that “it says right here on the bottle not to take this medication with drugs or alcohol!”
  • Some self-help groups still espouse blanket opposition of any “psychotropic” medications, even when clearly indicated for patients with COD. Groups that recognize the importance of pharmacotherapy, such as Dual Diagnosis Anonymous (DDA), have emerged, but are not yet widely available.30
  • Although there are increasing options for FDA-approved medications for SUDs, they are limited to the treatment of alcohol, opioid, and nicotine use disorders31; are often restricted due to hospital and health insurance formularies32; and remain underprescribed for patients with dual disorders.11

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