Understanding the Problem

Navigating Diagnosis of Substance Use Disorder or Mental Health Issues

You matter more than any condition you may struggle with. Defining and diagnosing a challenge can bring tremendous clarity and hope.

Understanding what may be wrong is key when addressing a problem. Talking with a trained medical professional, such as a doctor or a therapist, can help bring clarity to root problems when dealing with substance abuse.

If you feel trapped, stuck, or hopeless around substance use or another challenge, it’s valuable to reach out for help, whether you technically have an addiction or not. Talk to a doctor, tell a trusted friend, or visit a support group.

What matters most is seizing the opportunity to get help. Don’t let the specifics of trying to define the problem delay your process of taking a step forward. No matter the diagnosis, there’s hope for you. A condition cannot define or limit your value or worth.


Be Aware of Warning Signals

The initial steps towards health include identifying what is really wrong. We need help from others in this process. If you’re trying to understand why a car won’t start, or what that clanging sound in an engine might be, the first step is to take the car to an auto shop. Sure, it’s important to know what parts must be ordered, but first things first: you have to get the car to the shop.

Sometimes we’ll try to fix the clanging sound ourselves, or turn the music up really loud so we can’t hear it. But if there’s a leak in the fuel line, changing the tires is not going to help. Turning the music up is not going to stop your power steering from going out.

Your neighbor may be useful in washing the car or filling the tires, but there are times when you are going to need to bring your vehicle to someone who knows how to address the leak or change the drive belt. It’s either that, or you may lose control and face a serious accident.

Remember, fixing a car’s engine, or addressing another automotive challenge, is rarely just for the sake of hearing the engine run, or having the car function perfectly. It’s so that the car can continue on its journey, be a conveyer of family to venture into nature, or to complete life-giving, important tasks.

If you’re skittish about getting a diagnosis, remember that it doesn’t have to define your life. The positive outcomes of getting help outweigh the negative outcomes of staying stuck in destructive behaviors. Start taking steps toward hope and health today.

There Is Hope in Help

When we see a warning light in our lives, delay is not our friend. That warning light may be an indication of something more serious, and it is not wise to ignore it (out of fear or inconvenience). Seeking help to understand a possible mental health condition or addiction is crucial for experiencing more in life. Here are some suggestions on how to maintain hope as you approach the process:

  1. Celebrate that help is coming. The willingness to look inside and see what isn’t working, whether individually or with help, is a brave step. Your willingness to look inside is courageous, and can be the beginning of positive change for yourself, your family, and your community.
  2. Partner with trained professionals. Medical professionals, such as doctors or licensed therapists and counselors, are best positioned to help provide clarity, particularly if the symptoms are serious.
  3. Understanding what the specific challenge is matters less than moving forward and getting help. The shame attached to mental health, and particularly addiction, can keep us from looking inside or seeking help. Don’t let fear about what the problem may or may not be keep you from stepping forward. If you’re feeling down, are constantly in pain, exhausted, or are in any way trapped or stuck, getting help is vital. Whether you receive a diagnosis or not matters less than starting the process towards growth and change.
  4. Focus on the hope and life in front of you. Recognizing the possible joys and adventures ahead is a valuable motivator for change. There is beauty and hope waiting for you on the other side.
  5. Involve community as you deal with uncertainty and change. The process of understanding and addressing a challenge, whether it’s addiction-related or not, can feel uncertain or complicated. Involving others that you trust in your process — whether a trusted friend, counselor, or medical professional — is important.

Screening Tools and Formal Diagnosis

You may still be wondering if your struggles are classified as an addiction, or another type of mental health disorder.

ASAM (The American Society of Addiction Medicine) defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

In layman’s terms, addiction is indicated by the presence of physical, mental, relational, or spiritual challenges.

There are many tests used to “screen” for signs of drug or alcohol addiction, most of which need to be administered by licensed professionals. For many, answering “yes” to their questions indicates that additional help is needed.

The CAGE – AID questionnaire is a four-question screening tool used to identify problems with alcohol or drug use:

  • Have you ever felt that you ought to cut down on your drinking or drug use?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you ever had a drink or used drugs first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

Two additional questions also used to screen for problems include:

  • Is the behavior or substance use causing challenges in work, friend, or family settings?
  • Do you ever lie about the behavior or substance use, or how frequently it occurs?

This infographic, produced by the Recovery Research Institute in alignment with the American Psychiatric Association, provides indicators of possible severity for substance use disorders.

Again, for individuals with serious alcohol or opioid use disorders, involvement of medical professionals is crucial. Detoxification can be life-threatening.

Remember, whatever the diagnosis, change is possible. The brain is neuroplastic. This means that your brain can be rewired for healthy behavior and patterns. There is hope for growth in each of us, whether you suffer from a serious mental health condition, or simply have a negative habit you no longer want to engage in.

You’re not in this alone. Millions of other Americans deal with these challenges. If you’re looking for additional resources on screening or diagnosis processes, check out the following resources:

For alcohol-related challenges, check out the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence’s self test

For drug-related challenges, check out the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence self test



More Articles on Understanding the Problem