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Dual-Diagnosis Patients: Slow Progress in Improving Care

Dual-Diagnosis Patients: Slow Progress in Improving Care

The therapeutic challenges presented by comorbid psychiatric and substance abuse disorders, along with strategies and initiatives to improve treatment, were the focus of a recent collection of studies and reviews in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. The articles underlined the fact that debility caused by this comorbidity is frequently exacerbated by fragmentation of treatment and inadequacy of health insurance benefits.

Epidemiological studies of this population were reviewed by Westley Clark, MD, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and colleagues1; they noted that dual-diagnosis patients have inadequate access to treatment, but also that the data have informed initiatives undertaken by SAMHSA to improve both quality and accessibility of treatment.

"Screening and referral must become routine so that mental and substance use disorders receive equal treatment," Clark and colleagues declared. "In addition, there is a need to reach people who have co-occurring mild to moderate mental and substance use disorders before their conditions become more severe."1

Across the large population surveys reviewed by Clark and colleagues, the rates of alcohol and drug use are higher among individuals with psychiatric illnesses. In one survey, substance abuse disorders occurred in about 20% of persons with mood disorders in comparison to 8% of those without mood disorders; and in about 18% of persons with anxiety disorders, compared with 10% of those without that comorbidity.2

Despite the large numbers of patients with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, relatively few were found to have received treatment. Lack of access to treatment and health insurance coverage were most common in traditionally underserved groups such as the elderly, minorities, those with low incomes, and residents of rural areas. The surveys also indicated that many dual-diagnosis patients do not perceive the need for treatment, which Clark and colleagues characterized as a major barrier to providing care.

A lack of cohesive treatment is an additional impediment to care, according to Clark and coauthors. "Persons with [co-occurring disorders] frequently fall through the cracks between the mental health and substance treatment systems, are shuttled between systems that can only treat one type of disorder, or receive simultaneous care from clinicians in segregated treatment systems that do not have the capacity to share information," they said. "The result is often a fragmented, confusing and ineffective treatment experience that cannot appreciate the unique interrelations between an individual's co-occurring disorders."1

Initiatives to improve care

Several initiatives have been undertaken by SAMHSA to improve the care of patients with dual diagnosis, according to Clark and colleagues. The Co-occurring State Incentive Grant (COSIG) and Co-occurring Center for Excellence provide funding and training to encourage workforce development and adoption of evidence-based practices. SAMHSA has recently emphasized population-based preventive strategies and used the epidemiological data to target particularly susceptible populations for preventive services.

The COSIG program, Clark and colleagues indicate, "makes a major commitment to help states remove infrastructure barriers, or the most critical roadblocks for systems seeking to provide integrated care." One example of a program emerging from COSIG funding is a Web site developed in Pennsylvania for health professionals that provides courses in treating co-occurring disorders (http://www.pa-co-occurring.org). In Virginia, the COSIG funds were leveraged to expand a service integration pilot project into additional facilities.

With epidemiological data indicating distribution patterns of co-occurring disorders, SAMHSA launched a series of regional workshops for state transformation teams, in concert with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. SAMHSA intends this effort to result in "more effective blending and use of available resources, and improvements in the infrastructure for delivering services to adults and children in need."1

Readiness and motivation for treatment and change

The lack of perceived need for treatment is considered in a review by Carlo DiClemente, PhD, and colleagues3 from the University of Maryland. Although denial of need for treatment and the absence of readiness for treatment have been studied in patients with substance abuse disorders for more than 20 years, they found the literature on dual-diagnosis patients to be recent and limited.

DiClemente and colleagues note that motivation to change is also important for the progress of patients with mental illness, particularly affecting adherence to medication regimens and responsiveness to psychosocial interventions. They find, however, that there is insufficient research to ascertain how patients with dual diagnosis can be motivated to change.

"The questions include whether these dually diagnosed individuals can access the intentional process of change and make use of decision making, intentionality, commitment, planning, and experiential and behavioral processes of change when they make changes in their substance-abusing or adherence behaviors"3

DiClemente and colleagues call for greater efforts in assessing and influencing motivation to change within the process of treating this population. They suggest, for example, that the choice between referring a patient to an outpatient or to a residential treatment program, aside from available resources and proposed benefits, should take into consideration the motivation and required level of support to change, in addition to traditional considerations of problem severity or the initial treatment setting.

"Clearly, less motivated individuals need more proactive and intense interventions," they wrote.3

Testing treatment strategies: Modified therapeutic community

The efficacy of a modified therapeutic community was compared with that of a basic program for 198 outpatients with dual diagnosis in a study published by Stanley Sacks, PhD, and colleagues4 of the National Development and Research Institutes in New York. In this study, the modified treatment community (MTC) program included the basic program services in addition to a psychoeducational seminar, trauma-informed addictions treatment, and case management. The seminar was intended to improve clients' understanding of mental illness, the investigators explained. The particular addictions treatment helped clients discuss issues of addiction and recovery and develop means to cope with past and present trauma. The 12-week intensified outpatient program was provided in 3-hour sessions 3 days a week.

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