A Deeper Look at Co-Occurring Disorders

8 Mar, 2021

A co-occurring disorder is a disorder that occurs when someone suffers from both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health disorder. These disorders can include but are not limited to when an addiction co-occurs with clinical anxiety, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, BPD, or ADHD. Quite simply, if a person suffers from any disorder that occurs simultaneously as a SUD, the phenomenon can be considered a co-occurring disorder.

When an individual experiences a co-occurring disorder, life can become tremendously stressful. The level of energy taken up by managing a co-occurring disorder is considerable. However, with multiple treatment options at your disposal, there are many ways to decide how you would like to proceed with your experience regarding treatment and handling any external stressors that may exacerbate your level of stress.

Why Do People Develop Co-Occurring Disorders?

“Self-medicating” is a frequently used and heavily stigmatized phrase that implies that anyone with a mental illness is more prone to taper down their symptoms by indulging in addictive behaviors. In practice, the reasons for co-occurring disorders are much more multi-faceted. The causes can be both environmental and genetic and are unique to every individual. With millions of Americans facing the challenges of co-occurring disorders, it is essential to recognize it as more than an additional problem many with disorders face. Instead, it should be acknowledged as a common and recognizable disorder that calls for recognition and legitimization.

Does One Cause the Other?

There is still a long way to go in understanding drug use and its effects on the mental health of people who either have or are predisposed to mental health disorders. Many questions remain about the chain of causality and influence in those who struggle with a co-occurring disorder. It may be that, in some cases, mental health disorders arise as a result of ongoing substance abuse. In other cases, the cause and effect are more challenging to understand.

Risk Factors For Developing a Co-Occurring Disorder

There are three major risk factors for developing a co-occurring disorder. Both drug use and mental illnesses are developmental disorders, and an adolescent brain that is still developing is at increased risk for both. If someone begins using drugs during childhood or adolescence before their brain has fully formed, that drug use can potentially affect the brain in a way that makes it more likely to develop a mental illness. Again, the reverse is also true: someone who develops a mental health disorder at a young age may be more susceptible to developing a SUD as well.

Both addiction and mental health disorders are brain diseases. Just as family history puts some people at higher risk for heart disease or cancer, genetics can predispose a person to develop a brain disorder like an addiction. Genetics can also set a person at higher risk for developing a co-occurring mental health disorder.

External factors can also trigger mental health disorders or SUD. These might include excessive stress, trauma, physical or sexual abuse, living in a war zone or other unsafe environment, neglect, poverty, or other negative experiences the brain has difficulty processing.

The Connection Between Substance Use and Mental Health

Substance abuse itself is known to have adverse effects on mental health. For this reason, recognizing the interactions between SUDs and other mental health disorders is the first step towards treatment. Chronic use of some drugs can lead to short- and long-term changes in the brain, leading to mental health issues, including paranoia, depression, anxiety, aggression, hallucinations, and other problems. Co-occurring disorders can create complex and unique situations in which the two aspects of the disorder interplay so that neither can be treated in a vacuum.

Those diagnosed with mental health disorders often use substances to feel better. However, using alcohol or other drugs fails to repair the mental health disorder and prevents a person from developing practical coping skills, having satisfying relationships, and feeling comfortable with themselves.

Finding Treatment For Co-Occurring Disorders

This acceptance of reality is an important decision for those who have co-occurring disorders. It’s also important to distinguish between different disorders with similar symptoms; for example, PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder look very similar but are treated differently. Putting the trust of getting better into the environment around you is incredibly difficult. It’s easy to feel like you are the only person who can help yourself as you may think you are the only one with direct control over your actions. However, treating both disorders with a professional is the suggested course of action.

For treatment, it is recommended that individuals receive intensive medical and therapeutic intervention and care for both disorders simultaneously. This allows them to manage the symptoms caused by the mental health disorder without abusing drugs and alcohol and worsening those symptoms — or allowing an untreated mental health disorder to increase the urge to drink or get high. Comprehensive care that begins during detox and continues through aftercare treatment and support is the best way to build a new life in recovery from co-occurring disorders.

Co-occurring disorders have a long history of stigma as being labeled as the action of “self-medicating” the symptoms of a mental health disorder. There are many common misconceptions about the nature of this phenomenon and how it is incorporated into someone’s lifestyle. Typically, the stigma regarding “self-medicating” has erred on the side of glamour. Having a co-occurring disorder, in reality, has proved to be a severe problem for many individuals and often demands a level of treatment that is meant to target complex psychological issues. At Sober Life, we are committed to providing intensive, individualized care that helps you get and stay sober. Our services offer necessary continued support to patients to make sure they fully recover. If you or a loved one is currently suffering from a co-occurring disorder, there is no shame in reaching out for help. Contact Sober Life today for professional and compassionate help at (619) 542-9542. 

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