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Robin Williams' Death Illuminates Unpredictable Undertow of Co-Occurring Disorders

For Immediate Release:
CHICAGO, August 15, 2014

While the specific circumstances surrounding Robin Williams' untimely death may never come to light, increasing awareness regarding the interrelationship between mental health and substance abuse issues can offer a glimmer of hope to millions of people suffering with co-occurring disorders amid a tragic loss.

Depression, for example, afflicts an estimated 350 million people across the globe according to the World Health Association. Furthermore, since one in three depressed people also suffer from some form of substance abuse or dependence*--more than 120 million people in the world have struggles similar to Williams'. And, to complicate matters even more, adults with substance use disorders are more likely than those without abuse to have serious thoughts of suicide (12.6 percent vs. 3.0 percent) according to SAMSHA.

"Due to the intense psychological distress associated with mental illness accompanied by substance abuse, co-occurring disorders are linked to suicidal ideation and suicide. Feeling a desire for immediate relief from such intense psychological pain can lead to thoughts of suicide as a means to escape the emotional agony," explains Dr. Greg Tierney, a licensed psychologist and Program Director at Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center in Aurora, Ill.

Having quit alcohol and drugs cold turkey and remaining sober for 20 years, Williams divulged in a Good Morning America interview that an overwhelming sense of fear preceded his relapsed in 2006.

"While it's not uncommon for feelings like fear, anxiety and loneliness to precede relapse, the feelings associated with relapse itself, like guilt, powerless and shame, only intensify one's depressive state. The interaction between such experiences cause an individual to feel hopeless and defeated," says Dr. Tierney.

Historically, substance abuse and mental health issues have been conceptualized and treated separately, initiating a misleading assumption that the issues are isolated. Later, it was believed one issue caused the other.

Presently, a mental health condition, such as major depressive disorder or anxiety, in conjunction with a substance use disorder is called a co-occurring disorder. Hence, today's integrated treatment premise is that each issue and the interplay of issues are taken into consideration.

In a 2009 New York Times interview, Williams expressed one of his hardest hurdles in life was dealing with the underlying issues related to his addiction. A poignant insight, Williams not only revealed the depths of his emotional hardship, he also reinforced the importance of embracing integrated treatment for complicated medical conditions like co-occurring disorders.

According to research gathered by SAMHSA, combining strategies from the fields of psychiatry and addiction treatment can lower the relapse rate among rehab graduates, reduce the number of suicide attempts and foster long-term abstinence.

"Substance abuse is rooted in avoidance. That's why Gateway clients with co-occurring mental health issues are exposed to strategies like mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy to address anxiety and impulsivity, improve self-awareness and enhance self-confidence. Successful treatment of co-occurring disorders can help foster the tools and knowledge needed for lasting recovery," says Dr. Tierney.

*Source: Montano B: "Recognition and Treatment of Depression in a Primary Care Setting," Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 1994; 55(12):18-33.)

About Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment

Since 1968 our goal has been straightforward: to help clients get their life back on track and achieve a life of sobriety, free from drug use and symptoms of mental illness, that is productive, socially responsible, and healthy. Gateway Foundation is the largest nonprofit treatment provider in the country that specializes in the treatment of substance use disorders, providing treatment for men, women, adolescents, and clients diagnosed with co-occurring mental health disorders.

Gateway's Community Division has treatment centers located throughout Illinois, including Carbondale, Chicago, Lake County, Fox Valley, Springfield, and the St. Louis Metro East area. These centers offer residential and outpatient treatment services for adults, teens, and adolescents accessed through insurance, state funding, and self-pay.

Gateway's professional clinicians help thousands of individuals successfully complete treatment by developing a personalized plan that treats the underlying causes of substance abuse—not just addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Learn more about insurance coverage, treatment options, or Gateway's confidential consultation at RecoverGateway.org or call 877-505-HOPE (4673).

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