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Building integrated treatment for dually diagnosed youth

November 26, 2012
by Susie Winston, LICSW; Theresa Winther, LMFT, CDP, CMHS; and Cheri Smith, LMHD, CMHS, CDPT
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For adolescents, there’s no shortage of turmoil in daily life: hormonal changes, peer pressure, the meandering path to adulthood. As if this isn’t enough, youth must also cope with the dual threat of mental health and substance-use disorders. Statistics pointing to the link between the two simply cannot be ignored: A 2002 SAMHSA report noted that children with serious emotional disturbances are at greater risk for substance abuse, while young people who experience major depressive episodes are twice as likely to use alcohol or illegal drugs than kids who do not.

According to a 2011 World Health Organization report, 45 percent of disability among adolescents and young adults is related to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcohol abuse, and other behavioral health disorders.

There’s no arguing that addressing co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders among adolescents is a significant public health priority. Doing so effectively demands integrated mental health and substance abuse services, but, as we found in our own effort, developing and integrating the key components of such services is no simple task.  

Integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders is more effective because both problems are treated at the same time, in an inclusive and holistic manner. This requires clinicians who are “dually credentialed” in both areas or, alternatively, a work environment that fosters a “side-by-side” treatment mentality, an environment that shares clinical and assessment information freely among all treatment team members and that develops and works from jointly developed consultation and care plans.

Our experience with integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders among young people indicates that overall client engagement is improved, care modifications are made faster—often in real time, care teams work more efficiently, and our young clients themselves typically have a more positive treatment experience. 

Cultivating partners and referral sources

In addition to building a highly-trained and collaborative staff, identifying key partners and developing strategic relationships with other organizations and agencies that serve youth is another essential element in the success of a youth-focused dual diagnosis treatment program. Proactively building partnerships with such organizations as the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, the Department of Children and Family Services, local school districts, hospital emergency rooms and local/regional teen shelters is of great value, since these places are on the front lines of service to young people and are well placed to identify those having problems and those most in need of help.

But don’t mistake effective collaboration with these youth-focused partners for effective integrated treatment, since these partners cannot replace the quality of care provided by an integrated team of mental health and chemical dependency professionals. The unique integration of such a team is essential to the kind of creative problem solving and discovery that, together with client input, can result in a level of effectiveness in care that is simply not possible in other supportive youth settings.

Overcoming challenges and barriers to dual-diagnosis treatment

Having a highly trained, dually credentialed professional team and a supportive environment are two necessary elements for success in an integrated program, but they alone aren’t sufficient. Authentic program success depends on the resolve of both disciplines, together with agency leadership, to purposefully overcome historical biases and create a shared vision that values true integration. For example, agencies committed to integration must be willing to embrace changes in culture and workflow, invest in new and unfamiliar perspectives, rethink their practice areas, and persist patiently as new models of care emerge and demonstrate their effectiveness in helping young clients.   

Until recently, mental health treatment has been based around diagnosing an underlying illness and reducing its symptoms, while chemical dependency treatment depended more on narrative, person-centered approaches. These differences made truly integrated treatment difficult. But the recent evolution of mental health treatment from the old “professional/client” model to a newer, more interactive “recovery” model in which clients became more directly involved in their treatment provided a significant opportunity for would-be integrated providers. Similarly, while reliance on the DSM is typically vital for mental health work, integrated treatment for dually diagnosed clients demands a wider view of the factors upon which successful treatment depends, including causality, family history, and individual life experiences, to name a few.  
Because such evolution is not easy, agency leadership should be prepared for some challenging times. Developing new holistic treatment approaches, merging cultural and treatment differences, changing infrastructure and work processes, and retraining/retaining key staff doesn’t happen overnight. But it is our experience that the effort will be well worth the difficulty. Ultimately, the merging of practice areas will provide a better blueprint on which to build effective, responsive, and individualized care plans.