What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

Many people who have substance use disorders have additional mental illnesses that can complicate the course of addiction treatment. These mental health disorders can be present even if the person is unaware of them. Finding effective co-occurring disorder treatment is vital to ensuring treatment success.

There are dozens of different co-occurring disorders commonly associated with addiction. Some of the most common mental health diagnoses include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder

In treating drug or alcohol addiction, these disorders are the norm, not the exception. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that almost 40% of people with substance use disorders have a co-occurring disorder.

The Connection Between Mental Health and Addiction

The high rate of mental health conditions associated with substance use disorders has caused many researchers to investigate why the two are so highly correlated. Two main hypotheses have emerged from the academic literature, which shed light on why these distinct problems frequently co-occur.

The Self-Medication Hypothesis

The first explanation for the high rate of co-occurring disorders is known as the self-medication hypothesis. This theory posits that people experiencing negative psychiatric symptoms often turn to drug or alcohol abuse to alleviate their discomfort.

A person struggling with an anxiety disorder, for instance, may begin to drink alcohol to cope with their anxiety. This can quickly turn into a treacherous downward spiral, worsening both the experience of anxiety itself and the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.

This spiral typically follows a distinct pattern:

  1. A person experiences negative mental health symptoms (such as anxiety
  2. They drink or use drugs to alleviate the anxiety
  3. Their anxiety is temporarily relieved
  4. After the drugs or alcohol wear off, the anxiety returns stronger than before
  5. They consume more drugs or alcohol to deal with the stronger anxiety

As a person continues this pattern, they develop a tolerance to their drug of choice, forcing them to consume more to achieve the desired effect. In addition, mental health symptoms can get progressively worse over time.

The temporary relief from self-medication can quickly become a toxic combination of severe mental health symptoms and drug or alcohol abuse. In addition, people caught in this spiral may neglect healthier methods of coping with their symptoms, leaving them without a clear way out of their pain.

Importantly, many people may not realize that the symptoms they are self-medicating rise to the level of a mental illness. When they first enter treatment or attempt to quit substance use, they find themselves dealing with a condition they weren’t aware of while under the influence. Getting a diagnosis can be a powerful step toward healing.

Substance-Induced Mental Illness

Another theory about co-occurring disorders has a different explanation. Many people with no prior history of mental health conditions can develop a substance use disorder and find themselves dealing with depression, anxiety, or trauma after some time.

There is significant data that suggests that living with substance use disorders can actually cause mental illness. This is particularly true of mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, which are frequently seen as co-occurring disorders when people achieve abstinence for the first time.

The Importance of Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment

Since the rates of psychiatric disorders are so high among treatment-seeking populations, co-occurring disorder treatment can play a vital role in helping people reach abstinence and maintain long-term recovery. 

When it is left untreated, serious mental illness can dramatically increase the likelihood of relapse as well as have severe negative impacts on a person’s quality of life and overall well-being.

As such, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) considers the integrated treatment of mental health and substance use disorders the gold standard of addiction care.

What Happens in Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment?

Integrated treatment for substance use and mental health disorders aims to treat both conditions simultaneously. A team of mental health and addiction treatment specialists works together to ensure all of your symptoms are addressed using targeted treatments, therapies, and medications.

This could include mental health services like:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Psychiatric medications
  • Integrated group therapy

In addition to these mental health-focused services, a treatment team at a co-occurring disorder program treats substance use disorders with the following techniques:

  • Relapse prevention programs
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Family therapy
  • 12-step facilitation
  • Group therapy
  • Individual therapy

Together, this suite of therapies can help people reduce their negative mental health symptoms, decrease the likelihood of relapse, and improve the overall quality of life of the person in recovery.

How Effective Is Mental Health Treatment?

Decades of research have examined the effectiveness of mental health treatment, and evidence-based treatments are remarkably effective at helping people recover from mental illness. Disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are highly treatable, and many people will be able to achieve total remission from these conditions.

Even if you fall into the minority of people who can’t achieve remission, treatment can vastly reduce your symptoms and teach you valuable skills that can help you cope with your mental health condition.

How Effective Is Substance Use Treatment?

Similarly, substance use disorder treatment has several tools that are effective at helping people quit substance use and achieve recovery. This includes both talk therapy approaches as well as medication-assisted treatment that can dramatically reduce the negative impacts of a substance use disorder.

Addiction can feel impossible to overcome, but targeted treatment approaches from an evidence-based treatment center can help you succeed.

Find Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment

If you or a loved one is struggling with both addiction and mental health disorders, finding co-occurring disorder treatment can help you break free from addiction and achieve recovery. 

The team at Quit Alcohol can help you to find that treatment and help you understand the next steps in the recovery process. Don’t delay seeking treatment any longer. Reach out to Quit Alcohol today by filling out our confidential online contact form.