What Is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Living with any mental disorder can be difficult. Living with multiple disorders simultaneously can make life feel unbearable. “Co-occurring disorder” is a term most commonly used to refer to someone experiencing a co-existing mental illness and substance use disorder (SUD). However, the term can also be used to describe a situation in which a client is suffering from more than one mental illness. Co-occurring disorders complicate both the diagnostic and treatment processes.

How Common Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about half of those who experience a SUD will also experience a co-occurring mental disorder and vice-versa. Drug abuse can happen at any time during a person’s life, but it commonly begins in adolescence, when the symptoms of a mental disorder may first present themselves. Adolescence is already a difficult time, as we navigate the path from childhood to adulthood while chemical changes are taking place in our bodies and minds.

Equally difficult is the transition into young adulthood, during ages 18-25 when we begin experiencing major transitions in work, relationships, support, lifestyle, and in some cases, education. Knowing this, it is unsurprising to hear that young people with disorders such as depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia, autism, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more susceptible to developing a SUD.

Childhood ADHD and Co-Occurring Disorders

Undiagnosed ADHD can be a challenging experience for children, adolescents, and adults as they attempt to navigate the world with a severe disadvantage. They may experience high levels of impulsiveness, have difficulting focusing on a task, have more frequent mood swings, and have more difficulty coping with stress than their peers. These differences may complicate their lives and isolate them from others in their age group, putting them at greater risk for co-occurring disorders.

Several studies have documented an increased risk for co-occurring disorders in youth with untreated ADHD. Some examples of this include comorbid conduct disorder, depression and anxiety, and again, a greater likelihood of developing a SUD.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

The most common form of a co-occurring disorder is SUD. This is a mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to an inability to control their reliance on substances such as legal drugs, illegal drugs, medications, or alcohol. The symptoms of SUDs range from moderate to severe, with addiction being the most severe form. The most common examples of SUDs include:

  • Opioid use disorder
  • Stimulant use disorder
  • Sedative use disorder
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Hallucinogen use disorder

Common Risk Factors of SUDs

It is important to remember that while SUDs and other mental disorders commonly co-occur, this does not necessarily indicate causation. There are many reasons why SUDs and other mental disorders may occur together. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), common risk factors for SUDs include:

  • Environmental factors: Abuse, trauma, and other stressors increase the likelihood of a mental disorder as well as the likelihood of co-occurring substance abuse. Working through trauma associated with stress and abuse through therapy can at times help treat SUDs.
  • Genetic factors: Historically, those suffering from SUD or other mental disorders have been accused of a weakness of character. We now understand that, as with most illnesses, mental and physical, genetics and family history play a direct role. It is an illness, not a weakness.
  • Mental disorders: Although not always the case, studies have found that people with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may use substance abuse as a form of self-medication. This abuse may temporarily help with some of the symptoms of mental disorders, but in the long term, It often makes the symptoms worse.
  • Chronic pain or illness: Being diagnosed with a chronic illness or trying to manage a chronic condition can be stressful. In some cases, this stress may lead to depression or complicate an already existing mental illness. If the condition requires treatment with an addictive substance (such as an opiate for pain management), the individual may be at greater risk of developing a dependence or SUD related to that medication.

How Can We Treat Co-Occurring Disorders?

Due to the complex nature of SUD and other mental disorders, we understand that finding the right treatment plan can be an arduous process. That’s why we make it our mission to provide expert help to those in our area. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for any mental disorder, including substance abuse. Integrated treatments are required to treat both the physical symptoms and emotional aspects of mental and SUDs.

At Crownview Co-Occurring Institute, we specialize in treating clients with co-occurring disorders using our multi-step program. We use a combination of thorough diagnostic procedures, psychotherapy, and life skill/work skill education to give our clients the tools they need to live a life free of substance abuse. Our treatment plans are comprehensive and tailored to the specific needs of each individual who steps through our door.

If you or a loved one is living with co-occurring mental disorders and/or SUD, you may find the situation feels helpless. It is important to remember that no individual is “too complicated” or “too difficult” to find a treatment plan that is right for them.

Treating co-occurring disorders is a complex task that requires a thorough diagnosis. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of one or more disorders and need help, give us a call at (855) 616-1095.