A better way to help young people with co-occuring conditions

Addaction is kicking off the Young People’s Health Partnership focus week with a focus on mental health and substance use.  At Addaction, our job is to make sure young people get the support they need – whether it’s for drug use, mental health, or both. Where co-occuring conditions are concerned, that can be hard to do. A co-occurring condition is when a person has both a substance misuse problem and a mental health issue. Sometimes this is also called a ‘dual diagnosis’.

Around half of all community mental health patients have reported problem drug or alcohol use in the previous year. In drug and alcohol treatment services, over three quarters of people have been found to have had a psychiatric disorder in the past year – mostly depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.

The way that co-occurring conditions develop is complicated and depends on each person’s experience and situation. Sometimes mental health issues and substance misuse problems are part of the same picture and develop simultaneously. In other cases, a person with a mental health issue like anxiety might turn to substances in an effort to self-medicate. Left untreated the two problems quickly become interlinked and can have a serious effect on a person’s health and well-being.

Research tells us that the best way to support people who have issues with their mental health and substances is to provide them with treatment for both conditions at the same time. It doesn’t make sense to only treat one half of the issue, and it’s often very difficult to determine where one problem starts and another one ends. Unfortunately, people often don’t get access to both services at the same time. That needs to change.

It’s a particularly difficult problem for young people. In our research for YPHP awareness week, we spoke to a young person who regularly attends Addaction’s drug and alcohol services.

“When I was seven I started hearing voices…. Everyone told me that I had an overactive imagination because I was intelligent and creative, so I believed them. By the time I was 13 I had started using substances because I thought that they would be able to dull the voices. Around this age I realised I struggled with anxiety and depression and this made me want to use certain substances even more to get rid of my symptoms.”

“The GP knew about my substance use but I didn’t tell her about the voices. Because of feeling depressed, she referred me to CAMHS, but the referral fell through and after months of waiting I was told that they lost my name on the system…To be honest I feel like they’re [CAMHS] really helpful for anxiety or depression, but anything that could be influenced by substances – they just don’t care. Since I got my care coordinator it’s been ok but it depends on who you get.”

She describes a journey through a system that is not always equipped, or able, to treat co-occurring issues, and where people can feel reluctant to disclose substance misuse when seeking treatment for a mental health problem.

We know that co-occurring problems can make life very hard for people, and that’s why proper treatment is so important. Without a comprehensive approach, people are left to face their mental health issues, drug / alcohol issues and other complicating factors such as housing, employment and poverty on their own.
Both mental health and substance misuse services screen people for the other issue – but this doesn’t always translate into a shared plan of action. Commissioners and service providers need to do more to change this. At Addaction, we want to see shared plans for young people become the norm, rather than the exception.

To hear more on what young people have to say, as well as some facts and stats that demonstrate why this needs to be addressed, head over to @YPHealth and @AddactionUK on Twitter and keep an eye on what we’re posting.
If you’re interested in reading more about this issue, take a look at our project in Lancashire for young people with co-occuring conditions. You can also read the blog from Addaction’s policy officer, Steve Moffatt, on what best practice looks like.

Addaction helps people change their behaviour to become the very best that they can be. It could be their drug or alcohol use or worries about their mental health – we support people to making lasting change in their lives. 

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