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Explaining Co-Occurring Disorders with Addiction

woman speaking with therapist

In the 21st century, we have become far more knowledgeable about mental health and the disorders that can impact it. At the same time as the number of diagnoses of mental disorders has climbed in the last decade, so too has the rate of the behavioral disease of addiction. Indeed, it is currently estimated that over 8% of the adult population in the United States struggles with substance abuse.

When looking at the rise of substance abuse rates, there are a lot of factors to consider, but there is a tenable and dangerous link between mental illness and addiction that cannot be ignored. The proof of this is in the statistics. A study by The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that over a third of people who suffer from addiction suffer from a co-occurring disorder. This is so common that there are actually specialized treatment centers for it. Co-occurring disorders go by several names, but the two most common are comorbidity or dual diagnosis.

List of Common Co-Occurring Disorders

Addiction can affect anyone from any walk of life. As such, it is possible for any mental disorder to co-occur with a substance abuse disorder. Still, there are several key substances that more commonly occur in cases of addiction:

  • Depression: People who suffer from MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) are far more likely to partake in substance abuse. It is common for depression to trigger addiction. One way this happens is that individuals will self-medicate in harmful ways that are not prescribed by a physician. Continuous substance abuse may also cause a person to develop depression.
  • PTSD: Post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in early life, can lead to behavioral issues down the road. One such way that this manifests is in the form of substance abuse. Substance abuse can also be used as a coping mechanism for PTSD, even if it is an unhealthy one.
  • Schizophrenia: Routine substance abuse may potentially lead to states of psychosis. It’s possible, in these states of psychosis, that a person who is susceptible to schizophrenia may have it triggered. Likewise, people with schizophrenia may attempt to cope or self-medicate by engaging in substance abuse, which may lead to addiction.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar 1 and bipolar 2 disorder both have a frequent connection to substance abuse. This is because people who suffer from them are susceptible to having manic episodes (mania or hypomania). During these episodes, a person will have impaired decision-making skills, be far more susceptible to risky behavior, and have bursts of sudden energy. All of these can manifest in substance abuse that can lead to addiction.
  • Anxiety: Generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD) is more than just a wave of anxiety. Such a diagnosis means that people will experience a wave of crippling anxiety that heavily impacts a person’s day-to-day life and their ability to do even basic self-care. People with GAD who self-medicate with painkillers, alcohol, or mood-altering substances can end up on a road to substance abuse and addiction.

Risk Factors for Dual Diagnosis

There are several key factors that affect how at risk someone is of developing comorbidity or dual diagnosis. One common factor is a person’s genetics. Some people are more genetically predisposed to addiction, while others are more at risk of developing a mental disorder that is prevalent in their family’s history. A person’s environment can also be an indicator of dual diagnosis risk, especially if there is a high possibility of trauma that occurs. A person’s exposure to drugs or alcohol at an early age may also impact their risk of developing comorbidity.

Getting a Diagnosis

Getting a diagnosis for a co-occurring disorder can be tricky. Oftentimes, physicians, therapists, and psychologists are hesitant to classify something as comorbidity. The main reason for this is that the symptoms of each disorder often overlap in ways that are difficult to recognize. Because of this, it is common for people to get treated for addiction without getting the necessary treatment for a specific mental disorder. In order to get a reliable diagnosis, it is important for individuals to go to specific, certified facilities that specialize in co-occurring disorders.