A co-occurring disorder, or comorbidity, refers to the occurrence of two or more disorders in one person.
This may refer to disorders that happen at the same time or one after another. Regardless of the way in which they present, their presence and interaction between one another can worsen symptoms of both illnesses. Many people who struggle with addiction are diagnosed with one or more accompanying mental health disorders. Compared to those who do not use drugs or alcohol, individuals who struggle with addiction are twice as likely to have a mental health disorder. Although substance addiction more commonly occurs in those with mental health disorders, it does not necessarily mean one causes the other, or that one existed prior to the other presenting. There are a number of factors to consider when trying to understand co-occurring disorders and how they affect one another.
- Drug abuse may lead to the development of a mental health disorder. Certain drugs can produce side effects that put individuals at increased risk for anxiety, depression, or psychosis. Depending on what drugs are used, for how long, and how often, serious brain damage can occur, which can make an individual more vulnerable to the possibility of a co-occurring disorder.
- Mental health disorders may cause an individual to abuse drugs in an effort to “self-medicate” their symptoms. For instance, if an individual is struggling with anxiety or depression, they may use drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with stressors. While these substances may temporarily alleviate symptoms of the mental health disorders, they ultimately exacerbate the condition and worsen the individual’s underlying problem.
- Individuals may have genetic vulnerabilities that leave them predisposed to developing addiction and mental health disorders. Many studies indicate that biological factors can put individuals at greater risk for substance abuse. Additionally, many mental health disorders have a genetic component to them as well. While a history of substance abuse and/or mental health disorders in a family does not guarantee an individual will struggle with the same conditions, it does put these individuals at greater risk.
- Overlapping environmental triggers can lead to the development of comorbid disorders. Early exposure to drugs and alcohol, in utero or at home, coupled with stress or trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, can put individuals at a great risk for developing co-occurring disorders. These occurrences may drive an individual to self-medicate and subsequently worsen the symptoms of both conditions.
- The current developmental stage of an individual can put them at greater risk for co-occurring disorders. Adolescents and young adults are especially susceptible to the development of comorbid disorders due to the unique stage of development their brains are going through. During this time, the brain is experiencing dramatic developmental changes and exposure to drugs or alcohol can permanently change the way in which this development occurs. Substance abuse during this critical stage can change how the brain functions and can put an individual at an increased risk for a mental health disorder.
Effectively treating co-occurring disorders requires a holistic approach to treatment in which an individual is accurately assessed and treated for both conditions concurrently. This form of treatment is referred to as dual-diagnosis and it is designed to address the unique symptoms that interfere with an individual’s ability to function and overcome stressors or triggers. In order for treatment to be most effective, it is important to identify the co-occurring disorders present, how they interact with one another, and the best method of treatment. Behavioral therapies that are tailored to the unique needs of an individual are especially effective in treating drug addiction and are more effective in helping individuals achieve sobriety. Treating one without the other often causes problems to worsen and relapses are common.
It can be difficult to identify which disorders occurred first, but regardless of the order in which they present themselves, treatment is most effective when it is designed to address all present conditions. Those who receive dual-diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders are more successful in their recovery and are better able to maintain sobriety long-term.