Integrated Treatment of Substance Use Disorders and Concurrent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Is The Most Effective Approach

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after an individual has been exposed to a traumatic event such as death, serious injury, or a threat of harm to themselves or to others. When exposed to such events, it is normal to feel intense fear, helplessness, and horror, but in most cases, these feelings are eventually resolved—but, unfortunately, not always. Some people experience long-lasting and intrusive symptoms such as disturbing flashbacks, heightened states of arousal, mood disturbances, and avoidance of memories about the event. These are the symptoms associated with PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more common than you might think. An estimated 1-in-10 Canadians will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Certain populations are at higher risk of developing PTSD because they are more likely to experience traumatic events. Members of the military are often seriously injured, witness the death or injury of others, and have their lives seriously threatened. Many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report being targets of enemy gunfire, knowing someone who was injured or killed, or even having to handle dead bodies. Such experiences can have a lasting effect on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being.

There appears to be a bi-directional causal relationship between developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and developing a substance use disorder. People with PTSD experience persistent and disturbing psychological symptoms, which make them more likely to use alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms. Conversely, people with substance use disorders are both more likely to experience traumatic events and less likely to be able to process them effectively.

Compared to either disorder alone, concurrent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders are associated with worse mental and physical functioning, and higher levels of psychological distress. When these two disorders are concurrent, the negative effects can be quite severe: they can impair a person’s ability to work, to maintain healthy relationships, and to maintain a positive outlook on life. As a result, people with concurrent PTSD and substance use disorders will often experience rapidly deteriorating physical and mental health, and should therefore get treatment as soon as possible.

There are several treatment options available for individuals with concurrent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders, including both medical therapy and psychotherapy. Historically, treatment focused on resolving the substance use disorder first, before proceeding to address the PTSD. However, the historical approach risks exacerbating a patient’s PTSD symptoms: when a patient with PTSD narrowly focuses on trying to resolve their substance use disorders, they are likely to be confronted with challenges and discomfort for which they are not yet adequately prepared. Today, however, most clinicians recognize that patients’ substance use is closely related to their PTSD symptoms. Hence, at EHN Canada, we believe that the most effective treatment approach is through integrated treatment programs that address both disorders together.

EHN Canada’s integrated treatment model acknowledges the fundamental interdependence between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders. Therefore, we address the two disorders at the same time, usually within the the same treatment program. Substance use disorders are conceptualized as tools—albeit highly dysfunctional ones—that people use to try to manage their PTSD symptoms. We educate patients and provide them with a new, healthier, and more effective set of tools, early on in their treatment programs. This reduces the likelihood that a patient’s PTSD will compromise their recovery from their substance use disorders. Our conviction that the integrated treatment model produces superior outcomes is also supported by patients’ attitudes: research has found that patients with concurrent PTSD and substance use disorders report an overwhelming preference for the integrated approach.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders have a complex interrelationship. EHN Canada treatment programs teach patients how to recognize and manage their symptoms and triggers. We also help patients create solid recovery plans that serve to guide their long-term behaviour changes. EHN Canada’s individualized treatment programs also push each patient to discover their own unique strengths and skills. We encourage and support our patients to further develop these abilities to support their successful recoveries and recovery maintenance. Patients complete EHN Canada treatment programs having developed functional and adaptive coping strategies, as well as assertiveness and effective communication skills. They walk out our doors ready to face the world, full of optimism, and eager to get back to their relationships, families, friends, and careers.

Meet Us at the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Congress

EHN Canada is attending the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Congress, April 2nd through 5th, in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

EHN staff members Dr. Hester Dunlap and Chris Howe will be presenting about Coping with Addictions Following Occupational Stress Injuries.

We would be very happy to see you there and meet you in person! Come visit us at our booth and talk to us about workplace mental health and substance use disorders.

Call Us For More Information About Our Programs

If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

  • 1-866-926-4196 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
  • 1-587-602-0266 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
  • 1-866-946-4806 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
  • 1-866-627-8604 for EHN Whiterock, in Surrey, BC
  • 1-866-965-4345 for Clinique Nouveau Départ in Montreal, QC