Common Co-Occurring Disorders
- October 9, 2020
When we hear the word “health”, we often immediately think about our physical wellness. We might consider ourselves healthy if we are eating well, getting enough rest, maintaining an appropriate weight, and having a strong immune system. What we might not consider at first pass is including our mental wellness into the conversation about overall health.
Thankfully, mental health is being viewed as a vital part of one’s complete health and wellness now more than ever before. To stay mentally well, people may implement strategies in their lives such as establishing healthy boundaries, engaging in activities they love, and finding ways to be mindful when the world around them is chaotic. But when mental illness is occurring, it can be extremely difficult to function in ways that allow for good mental health.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness each year, while 1 in 25 Americans experience severe mental illness. And while some people face the sole challenge of having a mental illness, others face the unique challenge of living with a mental illness while they are addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is known as having a co-occurring disorder.
What is a Co-Occurring Disorder?
A co-occurring disorder is a term used to describe someone who is experiencing both a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously. In 2018 alone, NAMI reports that 3.7% of American adults (or 9.2 million people) had a co-occurring disorder. This means that almost 10 million people throughout the country are abusing substances while experiencing a mental illness.
Not all co-occurring disorders are created equal. For example, some people with a co-occurring disorder had a mental illness prior to their substance use disorder. The substance use disorder may have come into play as a person attempted to self-medicate the symptoms of their mental illness. Conversely, several people who have a substance use disorder develop a mental illness during the course of their active addiction. This is possible because drugs and alcohol change the way the brain functions, impacting chemical balance and structure, which can trigger the onset of mental illness symptoms.
The intensity of a person’s co-occurring disorder is used based on the type of substances they are abusing and what kind of mental illness they are experiencing. There are various mental illness/substance abuse combinations that range from mild to severe.
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Nearly half of all people with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental illness. A co-occurring disorder can be a mixture of any mental illness and any type of substance use disorder, but there are a number of common ones that people tend to experience the most.
Anxiety impacts 40 million Americans each year. This disorder is marked by intense feelings of impending doom, heart palpitations, fear, hypervigilance, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. People who have anxiety often feel out of control and stuck in their own thoughts. This mental illness elicits a huge physical response because when someone gets anxious, they may start to sweat, have a pounding heartbeat, nausea or diarrhea, or trouble taking deep breaths. When an anxiety attack is over, people can feel completely exhausted both mentally and physically, lessening their resolve for their next bout of anxiety. These symptoms are often what drive some people with anxiety to drink or use drugs, as they may be willing to go to extremes just to have some peace and quiet from their symptoms.
Like anxiety, depression affects millions of people in the United States each year. Depression is a notoriously painful mental illness to experience, as it causes people to feel pervasive sadness, pessimistic about the future, unstimulated, and apathetic in their everyday lives. Feelings of hopelessness and disregard for one’s own self-worth are common, often shading a person’s entire day gray. Depression and substance use disorders commonly co-occur because people become more inclined to use substances to numb these distressing, lonely symptoms. Unfortunately, most types of mind-altering substances increase depressive symptoms after a while, causing people with this type of co-occurring disorder to feel stuck in a never-ending cycle.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
At least 70% of Americans have experienced one or more traumatic events in their lifetime. Natural disasters, sexual abuse, physical abuse, community violence, abandonment, neglect, and sudden loss of a loved one are all traumatic experiences that can cause posttraumatic stress disorder to develop. Someone who has PTSD is likely to have symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks of the traumatic event(s), insomnia, nightmares, loneliness, irritability, and fear. PTSD is not an acute mental illness, rather it is highly insidious if not treated. Even just one of these symptoms can be enough to cause a person to look to a pill bottle or a can of beer for some relief, but if the PTSD goes untreated, the substance use disorder can get much worse.
Antisocial personality disorder
Antisocial personality disorder is a type of personality disorder defined by characteristics including little to no regard for the law, excessive charm, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse, and disregard for the safety of themselves or others. This particular type of antisocial personality disorder is also known as sociopathy. Those who have antisocial personality disorder tend to be attracted to the use of mind-altering substances because they are more inclined to take dangerous risks and have little care about their own wellbeing.
Treating Co-Occurring Disorders
Co-occurring disorders are highly treatable conditions if the care that a person obtains is comprehensive. In the past, those who had a mental illness and a substance use disorder were told to get their drinking or drugging under control before they seek help for a mental illness. Today, however, that idea has dramatically changed and now both the mental illness and the substance use disorder are treated at the same time.
Depending on the severity of one’s condition, treatment for co-occurring disorders can be conducted at an inpatient or outpatient setting. Each patient will have their own unique treatment plan that includes therapeutic and pharmacological services that address both conditions at the same time. Studies show that when mental illnesses and substance use disorders are treated together, patients receive more effective care and are able to stay sober and in control of their mental illness for longer periods of time.
Do You Need Treatment for a Co-Occurring Disorder?
If you are ready to get help, do not waste one more minute of your life.
Call us right now to learn more about how we can help you with your mental illness and substance abuse problem. We will help you develop the skills you need to live a happy, healthy life free of the chaos of a co-occurring disorder.