What are Co-Occurring Disorders?

When someone is struggling with a substance use disorder along with a mental health disorder, this is known as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis. It is actually a very common issue and affected around 7.9 million adults in the United States in 2014. The two conditions become intertwined and often feed off of one another. It is essential that co-occurring disorders be treated simultaneously to address their interrelated nature and the impact that they have on a person’s recovery and well-being. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two conditions because they have similar or overlapping symptoms.

In some cases, the substance use disorder comes first and contributes to mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. In other cases, the mental health disorder may come first and lead to a substance use disorder. It may not always be clear where it started, just that there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. If one condition is treated before the other, it can reduce the effectiveness of overall recovery because there are still underlying issues that have not been addressed. Mental health plays an important role in reducing the risk of relapse and being able to focus on long-term recovery.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Dual Diagnosis

You may have heard people refer to dual diagnosis programs when it comes to addiction treatment. A co-occurring disorder is also known as a dual diagnosis and these terms are frequently used interchangeably. Both refer to a person who has both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder simultaneously.

  • Substance Abuse & Addiction: Mental health disorders can go hand-in-hand with substance-related disorders. A person may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating to cope with symptoms, or substance use may contribute to mental illness.
  • Mental Health Disorders and Treatment: There is not just one mental health disorder that is associated with co-occurring disorder cases. They can involve one or more conditions including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, personality disorders and others. Drugs and alcohol impact both the body and mind in many different ways and can have a negative impact on several facets of mental health.
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment: 1st Step Behavioral Health provides clients with comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment and therapies to support them in recovery. Several levels of support are provided as patients progress in their recovery and transition back into the community.

Depression and Addiction Co-Occurring

Depression is a common co-occurring disorder seen with addiction. Drugs and alcohol change the way the brain processes information – especially the brain’s reward system and how people experience pleasure. A person may develop depression following substance use, or they may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of trying to cope with symptoms of depression.

Anxiety Disorders and Addiction Treatment

Similar to depression, anxiety disorders are also fairly common with addiction. People may use drugs or alcohol to feel more relaxed in anxiety-inducing situations, but these same substances can also exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety and make the person feel even worse. As part of a comprehensive addiction treatment program, they can learn to manage their anxiety in healthier ways.

Schizophrenia and Addiction Treatment

When someone experiences symptoms of schizophrenia, they may experience hallucinations or delusions, make poor decisions, and have trouble relating to others. These symptoms may become more evident with substance use and some people develop an addiction from trying to self-medicate to overcome these challenges. Schizophrenia often makes everyday activities more difficult and the addition of substance use can make things worse.

Personality Disorders and Addiction Treatment

Addiction can also influence mood swings and personality, but then when combined with personality disorders, these changes can be even more difficult to cope with. The effects of drugs and alcohol can increase impulsiveness, risky decision-making, and the inability to properly control one’s emotions. Addiction treatment addresses the impact of personality disorders and substance use on one another.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders can involve illegal drugs, prescription medications, alcohol or any combination of the three. Millions of Americans face the challenges of addiction every day, yet only a fraction receive the treatment they need. It is important to remember that there is help available and recovery is possible if a person is willing to work hard and make changes.

Alcoholism and Mental Health Disorder Treatment

Alcohol is one of the most commonly misused and addictive substances available. Some people overlook the dangers because it is legal for someone age 21 or older to drink. However, that does not make it safe and alcoholism is a serious problem. Alcohol can put a person at a greater risk for developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. It changes the way the brain’s reward system functions and it can be more difficult for people to experience pleasure from everyday activities.

At the same time, someone already experiencing these mental health problems may turn to alcohol as a way of trying to cope. In turn, this can make their symptoms more severe and difficult to deal with. Combining alcoholism and mental health disorder treatment can help people to turn their life around and get on the road to recovery.

Drug Addiction and Mental Health Disorder Treatment

Both illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, and prescription medications such as opioids and benzodiazepines can be highly addictive. These drugs may be used to reduce pain, curb insomnia, decrease anxiety or increase energy, but they can also take a negative toll on physical and mental health. The same symptoms they are being used to treat, they can actually make worse. Drug addiction and mental health disorder treatments aim to help people cope with the challenges they face through healthier means that do not involve substance misuse. Drug addiction can be a slippery slope, but there is help available.

Common Symptoms of Co-Occurring Disorders

The symptoms of co-occurring disorders can vary greatly depending on the condition. Someone who is experiencing depression and addiction may not necessarily experience the same symptoms as someone who has schizophrenia in conjunction with addiction. Comprehensive assessments are generally conducted to evaluate substance abuse, mental health, and the impact of each on the person’s well-being. There are certain screening tools that can help. The main point is that the person’s condition involves both addiction and a mental health disorder occurring simultaneously. Some common symptoms of co-occurring disorders include:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Uncontrolled substance use
  • Building a tolerance to substance use
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to control use
  • Participating in risky behaviors
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Acting out of the ordinary to accommodate substance use
  • Suicidal thoughts

Remember that these symptoms can vary from person to person, so if there is a concern, seek help immediately. Be alert for red flags and warning signs that something is not right, especially if it is out of character for the person. They may have become skilled at denying or hiding their co-occurring disorders, but eventually, symptoms will emerge and become more noticeable.

How to get treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Despite the severity or complexity of co-occurring disorders, there is help available and recovery is possible. With the right co-occurring disorder treatment program and mental health support, people can regain control of their lives and develop a healthier lifestyle. 1st Step Behavioral Health can provide you or a loved one with the comprehensive care you need to get on the road to recovery and overcome co-occurring disorders. Contact us today by calling or texting (855) 425-4846!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.