Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders: What You Need to Know

A co-occurring disorder refers to an individual diagnosed with both a mental health and substance abuse disorder. Each disorder must be independent of one another to classify as having a co-occurring disorder. The onset of these conditions varies for each person. Some people may turn to substances to self-medicate and attempt to treat their mental illness. For others, the addiction may come first and lead to mental health issues or trigger inactive symptoms. Regardless of the circumstance, it is important that both mental health and substance abuse disorders are addressed in treatment.

Mood and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses that co-occur with substance abuse. Factors contributing to co-occurring disorders include genetic makeup, traumatic experiences, brain development, and neurological instability. Even if an individual with a co-occurring disorder is capable of abstaining from drugs or alcohol, as long as the mental disorder goes untreated, they will likely face challenges with underlying symptoms. The main issue with co-occurring disorders, especially for those who self-medicate, is that the use of drugs or alcohol do not only fail at treating mental illnesses, but it exacerbates both conditions. The individual is unable to develop and apply the skills necessary to cope and effectively deal with life stressors.

Unfortunately, co-occurring disorders can be tricky to diagnose. The symptoms of substance abuse and mental illness can sometimes intertwine. Furthermore, many individuals don’t seek the necessary help to address their mental health disorder. Individuals with co-occurring disorders are more likely to relapse and worsen their psychiatric illness through a vicious cycle that continues until both conditions are formally treated together.

In the past, mental illness and substance abuse were viewed as separate conditions and treated as such. Many people with severe mental health issues were never treated for their substance abuse. In addition, many individuals who attended rehabilitation centers continued to battle with the existing mental health disorders that were never formally treated. Thankfully, addiction and mental health are beginning to be addressed in integrated treatment plans.

Integrated care plans treat both mental health and substance abuse disorders simultaneously, optimizing the chances for long-term recovery. Leaving both disorders untreated could result in poor lifestyle choices that could ultimately be fatal. With integrated treatment, programs use an array of approaches to heal their clients on mental, physical, social, and emotional levels. The treatment plan is personalized for individual needs, and the staff is qualified to treat various mental illnesses.