Barriers to optimal care for patients with coexisting substance use and mental health disorders


  • Fraser C. Todd,

  • J. Douglas Sellman,

  • Paul J. Robertson

Fraser C. Todd, Senior Lecturer (Correspondence); J. Douglas Sellman, ­Associate Professor; Paul J. Robertson, Lecturer
National Centre for Treatment Development, (Alcohol, Drugs & ­Addiction) Department of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine, PO Box 4345, Christchurch, New Zealand. Email:


Objective:  This paper describes qualitative research that was carried out as part of a project aimed at drawing up a series of guidelines for the assessment and management for people with coexisting substance use and mental health disorders, or dual diagnosis [1].

Method:  A core consultation team of 14 experts with experience in the areas of both substance use and mental health in New Zealand was established to advise on the development of eight clinical scenarios. The clinical scenarios were selected to highlight a range of real life issues in the treatment of people with coexisting substance use and mental health disorders and were presented at 12 focus groups around New Zealand. The 261 participants of the focus groups were asked to comment on what was optimal management for each of the scenarios and to identify barriers to optimal care in their region. Written notes were analysed for recurring and strongly stated themes and these comprise the results of the study.

Results:  While there was marked regional variation in treatment approaches and service structures, many of the barriers to optimal care that were identified were common to all regions. The results are considered under the headings of systems issues, clinical issues and attitudes.

Conclusions:  A wide variety of barriers that impede the delivery of optimal care have been identified. These range from the attitudes of individual clinicians to the structure of the systems within which they work. A system of key principles and processes for organizing treatment in a way which helps overcome these barriers is proposed.