Did you know that approximately 9.2 million Americans have a co-occurring disorder involving mental illness and substance abuse? Individuals with existing substance abuse disorders are at a greater risk of developing one or more chronic diseases. One chronic disease that is commonly found in those who abuse substances is mental illness.
When an individual has both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness, this is called a co-occurring disorder. A co-occurring disorder affects the individual at the same time and affects very similar parts of the brain. Various co-occurring disorders often go hand in hand.
SoCal Mental Health’s Orange County Mental Health facility provides treatment for co-occurring disorders. Treatment programs can include holistic and evidence-based therapies to help find long-term recovery.
What are Co-Occurring Disorders?
For instance, people suffering from an anxiety disorder may self-medicate with marijuana or alcohol. When substance use escalates to abuse or addiction the potential for additional disorders arises. In these cases, the person could also be diagnosed with a substance use disorder while having an anxiety disorder or borderline personality disorder. Since both of these disorders are happening in the same person at the same time they are considered co-occurring.
It’s important to note that a co-occurring disorder may include one mental health disorder and one substance abuse disorder. However, it can also involve multiple addictive and psychiatric conditions at one time. The exact nature of co-occurring disorders varies from person to person. For instance, someone may be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder while also dealing with alcohol and painkiller abuse.
Common co-occurring disorders include:
- Depression and alcohol addiction
- ADHD and marijuana addiction
- Anxiety and prescription drug addiction
- Eating disorder and cocaine addiction
- Post-traumatic stress disorder and heroin addiction
These are some of the most common types of co-occurring disorders. However, any combination of substance abuse and mental illness is labeled as a co-occurring disorder.
Signs & Symptoms
Spotting the symptoms of a co-occurring disorder isn’t always easy. This is because there are various combinations of co-occurring disorders all exhibiting different symptoms. However, there are key signs to pay attention to that will help diagnose a co-occurring disorder.
Symptoms of co-occurring disorders can include:
- Sudden changes in behavior – A sudden change in behavior is a key symptom of a co-occurring disorder. This may be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
- Social isolation – This is defined as someone who has a lack of social activity. This person may have few people to interact with on a regular basis or suddenly isolate from social activities.
- Engaging in risky behavior – An individual may engage in risky behavior commonly associated with substance abuse. These behaviors include drinking and driving, risky sexual activity, and violence.
- Loss of control – Someone dealing with a co-occurring disorder may experience a loss of control over their substance use. This includes how much of a substance is consumed and how often or when a substance is consumed.
It’s important to note that symptoms of a co-occurring disorder will vary from person to person. But there are more severe symptoms to take note of, such as confused thinking, difficulties concentrating, and suicidal thoughts. Anyone experiencing these types of symptoms should seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
Causes of Substance Use & Mental Health Disorders
When it comes to co-occurring disorders, either disorder can develop first. Someone may develop a substance abuse disorder followed by a mental health disorder and vice versa.
However, people who struggle with mental illness often develop a substance abuse disorder later. For instance, someone with depression may begin taking prescription drugs to cope. This is called self-medication and typically leads to a substance abuse issue.
It’s important to note that there is a serious issue regarding co-occurring disorders and self-medication. While individuals believe they are masking their symptoms, they are actually making their condition worse.
On the other hand, those who start with substance abuse can trigger aggravated psychological problems. In fact, some studies show that chronic substance abuse can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. When examining the cause of co-occurring disorders, the cause typically falls into two categories: genetic and environmental.
Research suggests that genetic factors play a key role in someone developing a co-occurring disorder. Having a history of depression or addiction in your family is a factor. A family history indicates it is more likely that you will experience these problems as well.
Scientific inquiries regarding the genetics of addiction identified that individual genes and gene networks are tied to addiction. These genes or gene networks appear to function differently in those who are struggling with addiction.
Exposure to certain substances or viruses while in the womb has an impact as well. Infants who had an exposure to alcohol, drugs, viruses, or toxins, are more likely to suffer from a mental health disorder. While mental health disorders may not be apparent during childhood, they are often experienced later in life.
Having a family history of substance abuse and addiction can be an environmental factor as well. Children raised in a household where alcohol or other drugs are present are at a higher risk for substance abuse. When drug and alcohol use have been normalized from an early age, the cycle of substance abuse can continue for generations.
In addition to this, someone with a mental illness may be able to attribute it to several environmental influences. Exposure to certain chemicals or drugs, accidents resulting in brain damage, traumatic experiences, and stressful events, can impact mental health.
In summary, there are a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental, that can lead to a co-occurring disorder.
These risk factors include:
- Having any mental illness
- Chronic substance abuse
- Lack of treatment for a pre-existing mental illness or substance abuse disorder
- A history of trauma or experiencing a traumatic life event
- Family history of mental health disorders or SUD
Treating Co-Occurring Disorders
Co-occurring disorder treatment is available for individuals diagnosed with substance abuse disorder and mental health disorders. Individuals who have been diagnosed with co-occurring disorders are often in denial about their condition. As a result, these individuals tend to avoid treatment. They may also ignore medical advice as these types of conditions alter their perception.
However, this does not mean that a stable life is impossible. With the right treatment plan in place, trust, and time, recovery is certainly possible. With that said, those with a co-occurring disorder will benefit from a combination of treatments.
Healthcare providers recognize that integrated treatment programs which address both mental health and substance abuse issues can be more effective for people with co-occurring disorders. By addressing both issues simultaneously, patients may experience improved outcomes and a higher likelihood of successful recovery.
There have been many behavioral therapies that have shown promise for treating dual diagnoses. At our facility, we customize treatment plans to meet the unique needs of our patients for the best results.
Successful treatments for co-occurring disorders include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – evidence-based psychotherapy designed to change harmful beliefs and behaviors by identifying problematic thought patterns.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – evidence-based type of CBT designed to minimize self-harm behaviors by teaching mindfulness and coping techniques.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) –This therapy is focused on personal development and learning skills to help manage depression and other disorders.
- Humanistic Therapy – type of psychotherapy focused on a human-centric and compassionate approach with multiple methods.