A Definition for Co-occurring Disorders: What You Need to Know and What it Means for Treatment

Published On: January 18, 2022|Categories: Addiction|
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If you’ve tried to get clean from substances in the past and it hasn’t stuck, it can leave you wondering what went wrong and why it feels impossible to make progress. If this resonates with you, it’s possible you’re suffering from co-occurring disorders.

What is a Co-occurring Disorder?

It can be tricky to find a co-occurring disorder definition. In some communities, it means a person is simultaneously affected by two medical conditions. Others define co-occurring disorders as the presence of two mental health disorders that have a strong correlation, such as anxiety and depression.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll use the following co-occurring disorder definition from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration: the co-existence of a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder that cause functional impairment.

Someone who is facing a mental health disorder and a substance use addiction will struggle to overcome either until both conditions receive adequate treatment. Healing the whole person is essential to recovery.

Understanding how Co-occurring Disorders work

Though substance addiction and mental health are both complex in their own ways, each is primarily a brain disorder, affecting chemicals in the brain and how they interact with each other. They are closely tied to mood, behavior and decision-making.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, about half of those who struggle with mental health will also struggle with substance use and vice versa. These disorders impact each other in a cyclical way, too. 

It can be tempting to wonder which comes first when you’re looking to define co-occurring disorders, however, there is rarely one that directly causes the other. In reality, a combination of genetic, environmental and personality factors contribute to the onset of both.

Common Co-occurring Disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) generated a report identifying the most common co-occurring disorders. Anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) were among the most frequent comorbid disorders.

The likelihood of a diagnosis of — depression, bipolar disorders, psychosis, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), personality disorders and schizophrenia — were also all found to increase when a person was also impacted by a substance use disorder.

Examples of comorbid disorders are heroin addiction and an eating disorder, or depression and alcohol addiction. One may seem to be hidden by the more severe or noticeable condition. 

Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders

Often, individuals feel that treatment is ineffective for a substance use or mental health disorder. Unfortunately, recovery centers often separate them, only focusing on one type of disorder. This treatment may work in the short term, but for sustained success, a person will need to get treatment for both.

The first step to receiving adequate treatment is obtaining a formal diagnosis for both conditions. A medical or mental health professional should use approved assessment tools to avoid a misdiagnosis and factor in overlapping symptoms.

Treating substance use and mental illness requires intervention in all areas of life. It will include therapy for treating the emotional root of distress, lifestyle services (like job skills and educational opportunities) and a focus on physical health (like healthy eating and sleep education).

The National Institute on Mental Health advocates for the use of several therapies that have shown to be effective in treating both mental illness and addiction. They include the following:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy;
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy;
  • Assertive Community Treatment;
  • Therapeutic Communities;
  • Contingency Management.

The best treatment for comorbid conditions will also involve a collaborative treatment team. All of your service providers should meet regularly, working together to establish cohesive and individualized treatment plans, discuss medication management and hear your feedback on how your recovery is progressing.

Treat the Whole Person

Healing from an addiction and a mental health condition requires more intense and personalized care. It should be catered to your age, substance use, mental illness, personal history and your own needs and preferences.

It can be a tough journey, but you deserve to experience freedom on the other side. Pyramid Healthcare can help you get there. Compassionate professionals provide the therapy, education and life skills you need to overcome substance use and learn to manage mental health issues.

Schedule an appointment today.

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