What are Co-Occurring Disorders?

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Co-occurring disorders are a clinical condition affecting millions of people around the world. But what, exactly, does the term mean?

When a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder coexist, they are called co-occurring disorders. These disorders affect one person, at the same time, and affect very similar areas of the brain. The term co-occurring disorder is also used interchangeably with dual diagnosis.

Co-occurring disorders can be one mental health disorder and one substance use disorder, or involve multiple addictive and psychiatric conditions at once. For example, many people diagnosed with depression will battle both an alcohol use disorder and a painkiller addiction. Those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also wrestle with depression and a substance abuse problem.

While some instances of co-occurring disorders may be more frequent than others (see common ones here), any combination of addiction and mental illness is considered to be a “co-occurring disorder.” Examples of common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depression and alcohol addiction
  • Eating disorder and cocaine addiction
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder and heroin addiction
  • Anxiety and prescription drug addiction
  • ADHD and marijuana addiction

Co-occurring disorders are common, recurrent, and often very serious conditions. However, they are also very treatable and many people do recover with proper treatment.

How Common are Co-Occurring Disorders?

Today, about eight million Americans battle co-occurring disorders. As noted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, they can affect people of all ages and from all walks of life. Those who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, however, are 2x more likely to develop a substance addiction. The same can be said vice versa. Those who battle substance addiction are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health issue.

What Causes Co-Occurring Disorders?

With co-occurring disorders, either condition – the substance use or the mental health disorder – can develop first. Oftentimes, people struggling with a mental illness will use drugs or alcohol to try and cope with their symptoms (this is called self-medication). In other cases, people have used drugs or alcohol for some time, which then triggered or aggravated psychological problems. Studies show that certain drugs, or long-term substance use, can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness.

The following risk factors increase a person’s vulnerability to developing a co-occurring disorder:

  • Any mental illness
  • Recurrent substance abuse
  • Lack of appropriate treatment for either of the above
  • A history of trauma or a traumatic life event
  • Genetic or family history of mental health disorders and/or addiction

Co-Occurring Disorders are Brain Disorders

Mental health disorders and substance use disorders are separate entities. However, both are considered disorders of the brain. And for this reason, they often co-occur.

Drugs and alcohol use changes the way the brain functions. It interrupts a person’s brain chemistry, and affects how brain cells communicate with one another. Over time, the brain adapts to these changes and becomes reliant on drugs to function. Not only does a person’s wiring change, but so does their normal desires, priorities, and behaviors. Their ability to go to work, attend school, and maintain relationships are also disrupted. Much like they are with a mental health disorder.

A mental health disorder affect a person's thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine. These conditions may also affect a person’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Every mental illness is unique, and each person affected will have different experiences, even those with the same diagnosis. Much like with substance use disorders.

When mental health disorders and substance use disorders intertwine, the relationship becomes complex, causal, and cyclical in many ways. The symptoms of each disorder may also become more severe. In fact, those with co-occurring disorders tend to experience more difficult challenges (physically and mentally) than those with a single disorder.

For these reasons, it is important that a person with co-occurring disorders seeks integrated treatment that addresses both disorders, at the same time and place. Long-term, residential treatment is also recommended for those with dual diagnosis.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

The mental toll that co-occurring disorders takes on the brain is devastating. Left untreated, co-occurring disorders can lead to higher risks of suicide, hospitalization, social isolation, violence, victimization, incarceration, and drug overdose.

Fortunately, co-occurring disorders are very treatable. But because they are so entwined, all co-occurring disorders must be treated together, at once, by the same treatment team. This is called integrated dual diagnosis treatment. Treating co-occurring disorders separately, in separate facilities, is not recommended, as one disorder will be left untreated, and may then cause a relapse of the other disorder in time.

To learn about Turnbridge’s treatment programs for adolescents and young adults with co-occurring disorders, please do not hesitate to call 877-581-1793.