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What Are Co-Occurring Disorders and How to Know if You Have Them

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For some people, mental health disorders and addiction occur together. A person with a diagnosis of a mental health disorder, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, and drug or alcohol addiction is said to have co-occurring disorders. When this occurs, treatment for both conditions at the same time is critical to create the best possible outcome.

How Common Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports:

  • 7.7 million people in the U.S. have both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder.
  • Of the 20.3 million people who have substance use disorders, about 37.9 percent of them have at least one mental health disorder as well.
  • Of the 42.1 million U.S. adults with some type of mental health disorder, 18.2 percent have substance use disorders.  

It can be difficult to spot the symptoms of both conditions at the same time. That’s because alcohol and drugs typically mask the presence of an underlying mental health condition. For example, a person struggling with anxiety may use drugs or alcohol to slow down thought processes and feel calmer.

How Do You Know If You Have a Mental Health Disorder?

A formal diagnosis is the best way to know if you have a mental health disorder. This means talking about your health, behaviors, and feelings with a licensed therapist.

Co-occurring disorders commonly include anxiety-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or social anxiety disorder. They can also include mood-related disorders such as dysthymia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. Those with severe mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, are at a higher risk for using alcohol or drugs to control their symptoms.

If you have not been diagnosed with a mental health disorder but are using drugs or alcohol, it may be possible to spot signs of co-occurring disorders if you take a closer look at your behaviors.

  • Do you use alcohol or drugs to not “feel” anything?
  • Do you turn to alcohol or drugs to stop memories or control negative thought processes? 
  • Do you feel more in control when you are using drugs or alcohol? 
  • When you use substances, does it help you feel more alive? Do you find yourself more animated, happier, or able to participate in life better when under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you need to use substances to help you be less inhibited and more free? Or, do you use drugs as a way to feel numb?
  • With drugs or alcohol in your system, do you feel more relaxed and less anxious?

If you turn to substances for any of these reasons, you may have co-occurring disorders. Turning to a professional for more insight is critical.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders Is a More Complex Process

The complexity of co-occurring disorders can make treatment more difficult. The key is working with a therapist and other professionals who can recognize the presence of both conditions and treat both at the same time. Without proper treatment of both conditions, relapse is common. There are various components to therapy.

  • Medications: A number of medications are available to help a person see significant improvement in their mental health symptoms. It can take time to figure out the right medication and dosing, but medications can help a person feel more in control.
  • Detox Therapy: For those with serious drug and alcohol addiction, detox may be the first step in treatment. Detox is the process by which the body safely rids itself of substances with the supervision of a medical team. After detox, people gain more self-awareness and confidence in their overall ability to manage their health without the use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Psychotherapy: It will take time to learn how to manage both conditions at once. In psychotherapy, a person works with a therapist to discuss a wide range of topics, including past trauma, better stress management, controlling negative thoughts, and building a healthy future.

Treating co-occurring disorders can be challenging, but the results are worth the effort. An untreated or undiagnosed mental health disorder could be contributing to your struggle with addiction.

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