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Dealing with Co-Occurring Disorders

Published by Daniel Brooks Moore on

Mental health and wellness is an important matter in today’s world because everyone knows and loves someone who has a mental illness. Mental illness is common, it is very real, and it is treatable. The more we educate others about mental illness and the need for mental health treatment, the more lives we will change.

Mental illness comes in many different shapes and sizes. Some people struggle with depression in various forms, others suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while others deal with an obsessive compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders. All of these disorders are debilitating and keep the person from living life to the fullest.

Oftentimes, mental health disorders occur along with drug and alcohol addiction. These conditions together are called co-occurring disorders and it places the individual in a unique situation. When someone has a dual diagnosis of mental illness and addiction disorder, they need special consideration when heading to treatment because both the disorders need to be addressed at once.

Co-Occurring Statistics

Mental health disorders often occur along with a substance use disorder like drug and alcohol addiction. Approximately 7.9 million adults in the United States had co-occurring disorders in 2014, according to SAMHSA, and among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.

Either disorder – mental illness or addiction – can occur first. Substance use disorders and mental illness exacerbate each other and one can even cause the other one to develop. Logically, it goes both ways. Someone who has struggled their whole life with mental illness might try to self-medicate their pain away with drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, the continuous use and overuse of chemicals and substances have a profound impact on the brain and can lead to mental health disorders. As the individual continues struggling with co-occurring disorders, each one will make the other one’s symptoms worse. These individuals need clinical intervention to treat the disorders and get their life back.

Symptoms of Co-Occurring Disorders

Someone dealing with mental illness and a substance use disorder will show a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Co-occurring disorders complicate matters because both addiction disorders and mental health disorders have similar symptoms. At first glance it might not be possible to tell what exactly the person is struggling with, and loved ones might be surprised to know that their addicted loved one is also dealing with underlying mental illness.

One of the most telling signs, however, is that the person will withdraw from family and friends. They will usually try to hide the problem because they are embarrassed about it and don’t want others to know the extent of their problem. Other warning signs loved ones should watch for are sudden changes in behavior, engaging in risky activities, and a drop in grades or job performance.

Other symptoms of mental illness and addiction disorders include:

  • Extreme mood changes
  • Confused thinking
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Disregard for personal appearance
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Financial trouble
  • Legal trouble

Because the conditions overlap and symptoms are similar, it is extremely important that an individual with either mental illness or a substance use disorder be properly screened and assessed so that treatment professionals have a good picture of what is going on and know how to help the person.

Treatment for Dual Diagnosis

Before the addiction treatment world knew so much about co-occurring disorders they used to treat one condition first, and then sent the person over to treatment at a different facility for the other condition. This only causes frustration as the person never really gets to the heart of the issue to heal completely. The best way to treat someone with a dual diagnosis is to address both conditions simultaneously, at a facility that is equipped and experienced in treating co-occurring disorders.

Help is available for mental health and substance use disorders. An integrated treatment plan that addresses both conditions together is the best way to help someone who is dealing with a dual diagnosis. Treatment usually involves detoxing from the substance and then participating in intensive therapy and counseling for the addiction and the mental illness. Medications to help stabilize the mind and ease symptoms are often used, depending on the type of mental illness. Long-term care includes support group participation and ongoing therapy sessions when necessary.

In order to get help, the person must first admit they have a problem and need help. The more awareness we raise for this issue, the more people will be comfortable inquiring about treatment options. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time when organizations across the country take a moment to focus on the issue of mental illness and work to educate others about the need for treatment. Take time this month to learn about awareness activities near you and find ways you can participate and help spread the word that mental illness, although complicated, is treatable. There is hope.


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