The combination of addiction and another mental disorder, commonly referred to as a “co-occurring disorder,” is more prevalent than one might think. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), nearly 8 million Americans were diagnosed with co-occurring disorders in 2014 alone.
Education is the first step toward helping yourself or a family member deal with mental health issues, especially when they might co-occur with drug or alcohol addiction.
Mental Health Self-Help FAQ
Before getting into the types of mental health disorders that commonly co-occur with substance abuse, let’s take a look at three frequently asked questions about mental illness. Click on any of the following questions to see our answer.
Is substance abuse really a mental health problem?
It can be hard for some to wrap their heads around addiction being a mental illness. That’s not surprising considering how much misinformation about addiction is spread by word of mouth or online. In reality, the medical community has recognized addiction as a mental illness based on the way that the disorder changes how the brain works.
The compulsions that occur after these chemical changes are made cannot be controlled with willpower alone. That’s why effective, personalized treatment for addiction (and any parallel mental health disorders) is so important. The individual is unlikely to heal completely without this support.
What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?
The early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness can be very subtle. If you or a loved one has a family history of mental illness, your risk for developing a mental health disorder is greater.
The American Psychiatric Association recognizes the following symptoms as early signs of mental illness:
Inability to perform at work or school
Greater sensitivity to light, noise and audio
Desire to withdraw from others
Intense anxiety or nervousness
Unpredictable mood swings
How does addiction affect mental health?
Substance use disorders have a “the chicken vs. the egg” type of relationship with other mental disorders. The symptoms of untreated addiction can often evolve into a separate mental health disorder. On the other hand, the symptoms of a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder may encourage a person to abuse drugs or alcohol.
More important than figuring out which came first is identifying how to treat both illnesses. Attempting to treat each disorder individually is ineffective. Untreated symptoms from one disorder tend to make the other illness harder to address.
Individuals who seek treatment for both disorders at the same time experience more success. When looking for help for both an addiction problem and a mental health disorder, seek out a program that offers “dual diagnosis treatment.”
“I wish that people could understand that the brain is the most important organ in your body.
Just because you can’t see it like you could see a broken bone doesn’t mean it’s not as detrimental and devastating to a family or an individual.”
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Below is just a sample of the many mental illnesses that can interact with and be worsened by an addiction problem. Note that the most common co-occurring disorders often have ties to a drug that naturally mimics or enhances the symptoms of mental illness.
Click on any of the following disorder names in order to learn more about that specific condition:
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems affecting the United States and the world today. It’s no surprise that this illness is made worse by other mental disorders.
Those who abuse heroin often cite depression as a major reason they started experimenting with powerful drugs. Likewise, who can’t find health care may turn to heroin to manage their depression symptoms.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
ASPD is a mental illness characterized by lacking empathy for others, as well as the willingness to ignore the rights of others. This mental illness often occurs in people who are also struggling with alcoholism. Because alcohol lowers a person’s inhibitions, their anti-social tendencies may be easier to spot.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
GAD is characterized by racing thoughts, nagging feelings of doubt and high levels of restlessness. All of these are symptoms of cocaine abuse as well, so it makes sense that those with anxiety issues are more likely to abuse cocaine. Unfortunately, the side effects of cocaine are likely to make anxiety patients feel even stronger symptoms, leading them to more drug abuse.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD sets in following a horrific or very violent accident, injury or experience. Those who have been in war zones, for example, are at a high risk for developing the illness. Unfortunately, a lack of treatment resources has led many PTSD suffers to self-medicate with alcohol and/or opioid medications. This approach does nothing to treat their trauma. Instead, it will only repress the feelings while the person is using.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders
As mentioned earlier, finding proper treatment for co-occurring mental disorders is not easy. It takes a mix of medical, psychiatric and recovery experts to pinpoint the unique dual diagnosis treatment strategies that will work for each patient.
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