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Dual Diagnosis vs. Co-occurring Disorders

Patients suffering from a substance abuse disorder know that the physical consequences of the addiction are rarely the only issue. In many cases, these patients also develop mental health disorders. In others, mental health disorders may have caused the addiction to begin with. Either way, treating one without considering the other can lead to a lower risk of successful treatment and a higher risk of relapse. 

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that more than 9 million adults in the United States suffer from both mental illness and substance abuse. The integrated nature of this agency alone suggests just how common both are to appear in concert.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to navigate the waters of treatment. It’s easy to find options that treat either mental illness or addiction, but finding treatment for both is more challenging. That’s worsened by the fact that terminology is often confusing, like the nearly-but-not-quite-identical terms dual diagnosis vs. co-occurring disorders. This guide will explore the difference between both, and what that means for potential treatment options.

What is Dual Diagnosis?

Colloquially, the term dual diagnosis is used to refer to the co-existence of a mental health disorder and a substance abuse disorder. But the technical definition is actually broader than that; medical professionals use the term any time two or more disorders are diagnosed simultaneously. 

Those diagnoses, in turn, don’t have to just be mental health conditions. A patient being simultaneously diagnosed with cancer and depression fits under the same category as one who has an alcohol addiction paired with anxiety. 

Whereas the type of condition that can fall under dual diagnosis is broad, the timeline is specific. Only two conditions that are diagnosed at the same time fall under the term. A substance abuse disorder diagnosis followed by the discovery of a mental illness months later would not fit into this category. 

What is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

The term co-occurring disorder describes the presence of both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder at the same time. Substance use disorders commonly occur alongside or lead to mental health disorders, including (but not limited to):

  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • And more.

The combination of these illnesses is so common that estimates that up to 75% of adolescents who suffer from substance abuse also have a co-occurring mental illness.

It’s important to note that there is not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship between substance use and mental disorder. Self-medicating a mental illness like the above may lead to addiction, just as frequent alcohol use may lead to depression. The key is not just understanding what led to the other, but how both can be treated effectively for a more comprehensive recovery. 

What are the Differences Between Dual Diagnosis and Co-Occurring Disorders?

Unlike dual diagnosis, the term co-occurring disorder is more specifically tailored to the co-occurrence of substance abuse and mental illness. It also doesn’t attach a time frame to the diagnosis; instead, any individual who has both a substance abuse disorder and mental illness can benefit from a treatment plan for co-occurring disorders. 

For that reason, the SAMHSA prefers the term co-occurring disorders over dual diagnosis. It’s more specific when it comes to defining what exact (and commonly combined) disorders require treatment, while at the same time being more general when it comes to the less relevant timeline–the exact time at which these disorders received a diagnosis.

Another important variable of co-occurring disorders that the term dual diagnosis cannot quite reach is the fact that for truly comprehensive treatment, both disorders must occur independently from each other.

In other words, the existence of shared symptoms (like those commonly shared by depression and alcohol use) is not enough to diagnose co-occurring disorders. Instead, each requires an independent diagnosis to ensure that the treatment can properly address the symptoms and root causes of each.

This also separates co-occurring disorders from dual diagnosis. Because the latter requires simultaneous discovery of both, confusing similar symptoms as evidence that both types of disorders are present is common and can lead to less successful treatment options.

Benefits of Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

When an individual receives a diagnosis that identifies co-occurring disorders, receiving the right treatment becomes absolutely essential. Treating one condition without considering the other can lead to incomplete treatments that increase the risks of relapse and decrease the chances of a successful recovery.

The right treatment, administered by the right professionals, can go a long way to walking the long road to recovery. Most likely for co-occurring disorders treatment, that means not a single treatment, but a combination that focuses on the various behavioral aspects designed to bring the patient back from the depths of both disorders.

Without treatment, on the other hand, the consequences can be dire. Co-occurring disorders are common precursors to not just relapse, but suicide attempts. It’s difficult for anyone to acknowledge that they need help but without that acknowledgment, and the treatment that follows, co-occurring disorders can devastate not just the patient’s life but everyone around them.

Dual diagnosis treatment is also crucial because it recognizes and addresses the complex interplay between mental health and substance use disorders, leading to more effective and comprehensive care for individuals with co-occurring conditions.

Finding Treatment for Dual Diagnosis and Co-Occurring Disorders in Orange County, CA

When it comes to co-occurring disorders, the right treatment is absolutely essential. At SoCal Mental Health, we specialize in short-term residential treatment options for both those struggling with mental health disorders, and individuals with co-occurring disorders. 

Dual diagnosis treatment is crucial because it recognizes and addresses the complex interplay between mental health and substance use disorders, leading to more effective and comprehensive care for individuals with co-occurring conditions.

Our treatment options can be combined to fit the needs of all individuals based on their diagnoses. That might include cognitive behavioral therapy to change harmful beliefs or behaviors, or acceptance and commitment therapy to develop skills that can help to manage the disorder. 

And that’s only the beginning. Our extensive experience with co-occurring disorders allows us to develop a custom treatment plan for everyone who needs it. Located in Orange County, California, we’re ready to help individuals and their families on the long road to recovery. Contact us to get help today and get help in finding your way out of the crisis you or your loved one are facing.

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