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What Are Co-Occurring Disorders and How Are They Treated?

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Co-Occurring Disorders

A certain catch-phrase has made its way out of the recovery community and into the general lexicon.

"He drinks alcohol to self-medicate his depression."

"She picks up heroin to self-medicate her anxiety."

Although people seem to understand that addiction and mental health disorders go together, these conditions are still often treated as separate issues – even in many professional settings.

This is a big mistake.

When someone suffers both chemical dependency and another mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, these are known as co-occurring disorders.

Since symptoms are so intertwined, it's important to understand as much as possible about co-occurring disorders: the definition, examples, signs to look out for, and how to find treatment.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Smoking

Co-Occurring Disorders: Definition and Causes

Comorbidity, dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders – these terms all refer to the same idea that substance abuse often occurs with other mental health conditions.

For many people, the chemical dependency produces the most obvious symptoms while the mental health condition is considered a secondary issue. This is unfortunate because dual conditions require comprehensive treatment. They should be treated together – not one first and then the other years down the road.

Wondering which came first is often like the chicken and egg conundrum.

In some cases, substance abuse brings underlying mental health conditions to the surface. In other cases, substance abuse causes the mental health condition itself. And still in other cases, individuals seek out substances to self-medicate their long-held mental health conditions as a substitute for professional treatment.

Not every instance of dual-diagnosis is very apparent. In fact, it can be very subtle. Take for example the fact that people with mental health conditions are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes.

What Causes Two Conditions to Occur?

Self-medicating is only one small piece of co-occurring disorders. These are complex conditions and even experts like the National Institute on Drug Abuse aren't 100% certain what causes them to manifest.

Here are some of the top theories

  • Genetics: A hereditary disposition to both chemical dependency and other mental health conditions.
  • A young age: Using substances like alcohol or drugs while your brain is still developing can interfere with the process and trigger co-occurring disorders years down the road.
  • Trauma: Everyone reacts differently to trauma. Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder can cause both substance abuse and conditions like anxiety later in life.
  • The very nature of mental health: Mood disorders and substance abuse could share a common cause neurologically.

Some of the Most Common Dual-Diagnosis Examples

It's impossible to create a concrete list of dual-diagnosis possibilities because each person is unique and can experience a wide variety of mental health conditions.

However, the American Society of Addiction Medicine has noticed a few conditions tend to stand out:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Pathological gambling
  • Compulsive sexual disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD and ADHD)

Substance abuse is a mental health condition – just like compulsive sexual disorders, pathological gambling, and eating disorders. It requires the same level of professional treatment and attention.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Depression

Signs and Symptoms That You or a Loved One Are Experiencing Co-Occurring Disorders

Even professionals have a hard time identifying where the mental health symptoms end, and the substance abuse symptoms begin. At the end of the day, these conditions must be treated as a whole.

Still, keep an eye out for these symptoms so you can get somewhat of an idea if you or a loved one is suffering from co-occurring disorders. Treatment is really what's most important.

  1. Feeling anxious, manic, sad, or depressed even when you aren't under the influence or coming down from substances
  2. Feeling like you need drugs or alcohol to cope with life in general
  3. Turning to alcohol or drugs after stress or a painful experience
  4. A personal or family history of substance abuse or mental health conditions like depression or anxiety
  5. You can't focus on daily activities or your job without help from alcohol or drugs
  6. Withdrawing from social activities and loved ones to spend more time using drugs or alcohol

Co-Occurring Disorders and Treatment

What You Should Know About Co-Occurring Disorders and Treatment

If you believe that you or a loved one are suffering a dual-diagnosis, help is available. People do recover.

Treating co-occurring disorders is not easy and requires an experienced professional. Not every addiction treatment center or recovery program is qualified to treat individuals with dual-diagnoses.

Every sufferer is unique. As such, treatment should be personalized for each individual's substance use experience and mental health condition. Without treating both conditions simultaneously, it's very likely a person will relapse and pick up drugs or alcohol again.

Here are some treatment methods a person may need to recover.

  • Medical detox to address the immediate chemical dependency: withdrawal from alcohol and some drugs is life-threatening without medical care
  • Personalized psychotherapy to address cravings, stress management, anger management, and relapse triggers
  • Family therapy to encourage an integrated environment
  • Group therapy to connect with others experiencing similar challenges
  • One-on-one counseling to address personal problems in a confidential setting
  • Expressive therapy with art and music to develop healthy recreational activities
  • Thorough discharge planning to ensure long-term recovery

The type of treatment program depends on the person's unique experience. This may include inpatient rehabilitation, hospitalization, or intensive outpatient programs.

If you or a loved one are experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts, or suicidal actions, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now at 1-800-273-8255. Help is available 24/7.

How Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital Can Help

Houston Behavioral Healthcare Hospital is a state of the art acute care psychiatric hospital with a passionate team. We understand the unique challenges patients with co-occurring disorders face.

We offer a variety of comprehensive treatment programs to fit each patient's individual needs. From medical detox to stress management and inpatient rehabilitation, we can provide the tools you need to start your recovery.

If you or a loved one are suffering from a substance use disorder and/or any mental health conditions like depression, don't hesitate to contact us today for a confidential assessment or call at 877-489-4707.