A person with a co-occurring disorder has been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder and another mental health disorder. Co-occurring disorders, sometimes called dual disorders, are best treated through integrated treatment that addresses both issues at the same time.
The brain is a complicated and delicate organ. It’s not surprising that alcohol and other drugs can cause symptoms of mental illness. The substances work by changing the way the brain operates. People who use drugs feel buzzed or high because the substances affect chemicals in the brain and the way brain cells communicate with one another.
In response to those changes, the brain adapts to the presence of alcohol and other drugs, increasing the chances that a person will develop a substance use disorder. Substance use disorders are types of mental health disorders that are more commonly called addiction.
It’s possible to have more than one mental health disorder. Substance use disorders often co-occur alongside other mental illnesses. More than half of people with substance use disorders also have a mental illness. Sometimes the mental illness comes first. In other people, substance abuse occurs first. In both situations, each disorder amplifies the symptoms of the other.
“A large number of people with substance use disorders also have some psychiatric disorders which may or may not be major,” Dr. Timothy Huckaby, medical director of Orlando Recovery Center, told DrugRehab.com. “A lot of people have underlying depression or underlying anxiety.”
Other common co-occurring disorders include personality disorders, behavior disorders and psychotic disorders. With comprehensive treatment, individuals can recover from addiction and most co-occurring mental health disorders. But failing to address co-occurring disorders during addiction treatment increases the chances of relapse.
What Are Mental Health Disorders?
The phrases “mental illness,” “mental health disorder” and “mental health issue” are often used synonymously. In its diagnostics manual, the American Psychiatric Association uses the term mental disorder to define mental illnesses, but the organization also recommends using the term mental health challenge.
The American Psychiatric Association defines a mental disorder as: “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.”
Some mental disorders are more common than others. Conditions such as anxiety and depressive disorders, for example, occur more frequently than schizophrenia and psychosis. Each type of mental disorder can range in severity from mild to severe.
Mental disorders are different from developmental disabilities. Developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities, impair social interaction, mobility, language and self-sufficiency.
Substance use disorders and other mental health disorders can co-occur alongside developmental disorders. But the term co-occurring disorder most commonly refers to substance use disorders and mental disorders.
Dual Diagnosis & Comorbidity
Dual diagnosis is an outdated term for co-occurring disorders. Both of these terms are sometimes confused with comorbid disorders.
Comorbidity is a broad term used to denote the existence of multiple physical or mental diseases or disorders. Co-occurring disorders and dual diagnosis are specific to substance use disorders and other mental health conditions.
Mental Disorders that Co-Occur with Substance Abuse
Any mental health disorder can co-occur alongside substance use disorders. The most common types of co-occurring disorders include mood, anxiety, psychotic, eating, personality and behavioral disorders. Each category includes numerous types of mental disorders that can range in severity.
Symptoms of personality disorders vary widely based on the type and severity.
Behavioral disorders most commonly occur in children. Many healthy people exhibit behavior problems, such as inattention, defiance and hyperactivity. However, behavioral disorders are characterized by chronic behavior problems that last at least six months.
Common behavioral disorders include:
Symptoms of Co-Occurring Disorders
The physical and emotional symptoms of co-occurring disorders vary depending on your life circumstances, the type of substances you use and the type of mental illness you possess.
The symptoms of mental health disorders are similar to the side effects of addiction. Thus, it can be difficult to determine whether a mental illness is caused by substance abuse or vice versa. Reputable addiction treatment centers screen patients for mental illnesses and develop plans for treating co-occurring disorders simultaneously.