What Are Co-Occurring Disorders: What You Need to Know

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Co-occurring disorders are far from rare, but many people are unfamiliar with this term. In today’s post, we address some fundamental questions about co-occurring disorders, including: What are co-occurring disorders, how many people have them, and how can they be treated?

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

The simple answer to the question, What are co-occurring disorders, is that they are two or more conditions that occur at the same time. In a mental or behavioral health context, this may describe someone who has two mental health concerns or an individual who has developed a substance use disorder (addiction) and a mental illness.

Co-occurring disorders may also be referred to as comorbid conditions. Also, having an addiction and a co-occurring mental illness is sometimes referred to as dual diagnosis.

Co-occurring disorders are not rare. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported the following about the prevalence of co-occurring disorders in the United States:

  • About 7.7 million American adults have both an addiction and a mental illness.
  • Experts estimate that about 38% of people who struggle with addiction also have a co-occurring mental illness.
  • About 18% of adults who have a mental illness are also addicted to alcohol or another drug.
  • More than 50% of people who have co-occurring disorders have not received care for either condition.
  • Only about 9% of people with co-occurring disorders have received both mental health treatment and care for their substance use disorder.

Many people who have co-occurring disorders don’t realize that they have been struggling with two conditions until they enter treatment. For example, it’s not unheard of for someone to seek professional help for an addiction to alcohol or another drug, only to discover during therapy that their substance abuse is related to untreated trauma, depression, or another mental health disorder.

Examples of Common Co-Occurring Disorders

The term co-occurring disorders can be applied to the simultaneous presence of any two mental or behavioral health concerns. However, some disorder pairs occur more frequently than others. The following are examples of some of the more common co-occurring disorders:

  • Addiction and depression
  • Addiction and anxiety
  • Addiction and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder and addiction
  • Schizophrenia and addiction
  • Anxiety and depression
  • PTSD and depression
  • Eating disorders and depression

What Causes Co-Occurring Disorders?

In addition to, What are co-occurring disorders, another common question about this phenomenon is What causes co-occurring disorders?

As is the case with virtually every type of mental health concern, there’s no single cause of co-occurring disorders. Typically, a combination of internal (genetic) and external (environmental) factors can increase the likelihood that a person will develop one mental health concern. These factors, as well as the additional impact of the original concern, can also influence a person’s risk for developing a co-occurring disorder.

For example:

  • Someone who has been living with untreated PTSD may turn to alcohol or another drug in a misguided attempt to self-medicate their trauma-related symptoms. Over time, this behavior can cause them to become addicted to the drug they’ve been using. In this case, a person may be described as having PTSD and co-occurring addiction.
  • A person who has been living with untreated alcohol addiction can incur significant physical, emotional, and social harm as a result of their alcohol abuse. Over time, the cumulative impact of this ongoing devastation can cause them to develop a depressive disorder. This person may be described by a clinician as having alcohol use disorder and co-occurring depression.
  • Anxiety and depression are among the most common co-occurring mental health disorders. Depression can be a risk factor for anxiety and vice versa. Often, it is virtually impossible to determine which one of these conditions occurred first.

Knowing the order in which a person began to experience symptoms is not a requirement for a successful treatment experience. What’s most important is that the person receives comprehensive care that addresses the full scope of their needs, including all co-occurring disorders.

Treatment Options for Co-Occurring Disorders

When determining how best to treat someone who has co-occurring disorders, one of the first decisions usually involves levels of care. 

If addiction is one of the patient’s disorders, they may need to begin their treatment in a detox program. After completing detox (or if the patient didn’t need that program), they can enter one of the following programs:

  • Residential treatment
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
  • Outpatient program (OP)

Some individuals spend time in several or all of these programs, which allows them to receive the most appropriate care while gradually preparing for a successful transition out of treatment and back to their families, workplaces, and communities.

Depending on a variety of personal factors, a patient’s care in these programs may consist of both medication and therapy. The following are examples of the many therapies that may be included in a person’s treatment for co-occurring disorders: 

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • EMDR therapy
  • Holistic therapies
  • Music therapy

As a person nears the completion of their treatment, they should also receive a discharge plan to guide their continued progress. This plan may include information about community-based resources and support groups that can help the individual build on the progress they made while they were in treatment.

Find Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders in Nashville

If you or someone that you care about has been living with co-occurring disorders, Nashville Treatment Solutions is here to help.

Our treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a trusted source of personalized outpatient treatment for adults whose lives have been disrupted by substance abuse, addiction, and myriad mental health concerns. With the guidance and support of our dedicated treatment professionals, you can learn to manage your symptoms and regain control of your life. 

To learn more or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.