Individuals who are in a formal recovery program for a substance use disorder can receive maximum benefit from treatment by attempting to incorporate a holistic approach to their recovery.
Often, the term holistic is associated with specific types of targeted approaches, such as natural foods, vitamins, etc. However, in the context of treatment, a holistic approach is meant to infer treating an individual as a “whole person.” This means addressing all aspects of the individual’s lifestyle and functioning. A major point of focus during recovery from a substance use disorder should be placed on improving mental health.
The term comorbid is a clinical term that refers to a situation where an individual has two or more formal diagnosable illnesses or disorders at the same time. When an individual has a diagnosis of a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder, the situation is often referred to as a co-occurring diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Because substance abuse does not occur in a vacuum, it is highly likely that anyone who is diagnosed with a substance use disorder also has a number of other comorbid issues and is at a high probability to have some type of co-occurring diagnosis.
Information readily available from professional sources, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), indicates the following:
- At least one-third of people who receive a formal diagnosis of a mental health disorder also have a comorbid diagnosable substance use disorder.
- When it comes to being diagnosed with a more severe form of mental health disorder, such as a trauma- or stressor-related disorder (e.g., PTSD) or a psychotic disorder (e.g., schizophrenia), the comorbidity rate for the disorder and a substance use disorder is nearly 50 percent.
- Individuals diagnosed with co-occurring disorders have more comorbid medical diagnoses than individuals without co-occurring disorders.
- Individuals with co-occurring disorders have significantly higher rates of divorce and unemployment, and are more likely to be on some form of social assistance than individuals without co-occurring disorders.
- Individuals diagnosed with co-occurring disorders are far more likely to relapse.
- Individuals diagnosed with co-occurring disorders have higher rates of suicide.
The high rates of co-occurring diagnoses in individuals with formal substance use disorders also suggest that there are even higher rates of subclinical mental health issues in this group. A subclinical mental health issue is a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression, that is not quite serious enough to be given a formal diagnosis, but still distressing enough to be an area of concern.
Addressing Mental Health in Recovery
When an individual is in treatment for a substance use disorder, the treatment should include addressing issues with overall functioning. This includes addressing issues with mental health and other areas of functioning in a holistic manner. In order to address a substance use disorder with a holistic approach that includes improving mental health, the following areas should be considered:
- Improvements in physical health: Good physical health sets the foundation for health and wellness in all other areas of the person’s life
- Assess, diagnose, and treat any comorbid physical disorders or conditions, including such issues as hypertension, diabetes, and other issues. Treatments for these conditions can involve a combination of medical and natural interventions that can include diet and exercise.
- Pay attention to diet and nutrition
- Become involved in a program of physical exercise to improve overall health. The benefits of an exercise program cannot be understated. Nearly anyone can engage in some form of exercise, such as yoga, walking, running, biking, team sports, etc.
- Improvements in emotional health: This includes interventions aimed at mental health condition, such as depression and anxiety. It also includes becoming more involved in satisfying personal relationships with others.
- Improvements in social functioning: A key aspect to recovering from a substance use disorder as well as maintaining stable emotional and mental health is having satisfying and engaging relationships with others. These relationships can come from family members, friends, and peers in recovery. One method of improving social functioning is to become involved in group therapy or social support groups, such as 12-Step groups. Individuals in 12-Step groups often make lifelong friends and connections that are supportive and fulfilling.
- Improvements in intellectual functioning: An important part of stable mental health is the ability to continue learning and growing as a person. Individuals in recovery should strive to become more knowledgeable and involved in activities that stimulate intellectual growth. This can include taking formal classes at school or becoming a leader in social support group recovery programs.
- Improvements in environmental conditions: It is very hard to have stable mental health if one is homeless or living in an unstable or threatening environment. Part of the recovery process from a substance use disorder should be to ensure that one lives in an environment that promotes a feeling of safety and security.In addition, environmental improvements can be made in a person’s work or occupation. Work provides a number of mentally stable resources. It provides purpose, a source of social support, and a source of financial stability. Individuals in recovery who are employable but unemployed should seek to find satisfying yet challenging work opportunities, whereas those who may not be fully employable should attempt to do some form of volunteer work or to give back to others through participation in community groups or as a mentor.
- Improvements in spirituality: Although spirituality may mean addressing religious beliefs to some individuals, it is not necessary to have well-defined religious beliefs or convictions to include a spiritual component in one’s recovery. The concept of spirituality does not necessarily insinuate that one must believe that there are mystical or unexplained forces in the universe. The notion of spirituality is the acceptance that there are influences, forces, or concepts that are bigger than oneself and that one seeks a connection with these things. For some individuals, this may translate into having a connection with others in recovery; for others, it may translate into giving back to society; and for others, it may translate into actual religious worship. Discovering how the aspect of spirituality fits in with one’s own personal beliefs and needs is an important part of addressing mental health in recovery.
Having an unstable financial situation can lead to issues with mental health and relapse. In order to address mental health, treatment should also address an individual’s financial situation. This does not mean that a person should strive to become rich; however, it does mean that they should feel relatively stable in terms of their present, and future, financial situation. For some individuals, it may be necessary to seek social assistance; others may need employment assistance; and others may need employment training.
Addressing mental health during recovery from a substance use disorder is best approached on a holistic basis. This means that the recovery program should assist the individual in addressing basic areas of their functioning that contribute to mental health and wellbeing.
A holistic approach to mental health addresses the entire person as opposed to simply addressing a specific identified disorder or condition.