What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

Recently, researchers have found that many people who have addictions to drugs or alcohol also have at least one personality disorder. This makes managing both very demanding. To make things even worse, overlapping symptoms often make diagnosis complicated. Finding a successful treatment can be complicated, too. The addiction and the mental disorder have to be treated simultaneously if the patient hopes to avoid a relapse.

Does Mental Illness Create the Abuse Problem?

Most of the time, the psychiatric problem occurs first. Then co occurring disorders, in an attempt to feel better, the person self-medicates with drugs or alcohol or both which then leads to a dependency on the substance. In other cases, drug or alcohol dependency can lead to depression, anxiety and other more severe emotional and mental problems.

Some statistics regarding dual diagnosis and co occurring disorders indicate:

53% of drug users and 37% or alcohol abusers have at least one serious mental disorder

50% of people with severe mental disorders also are substance abusers

16% of all jail and prison inmates are estimated to have severe mental and substance abuse disorders 

Because indicators of one disorder can imitate symptoms of the other disorder, diagnosis is difficult. Many of the symptoms of a person suffering from drug abuse, such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, delusions and hallucinations, are similar to symptoms of mental illness. Professionals who treat people with a dual diagnosis can easily underestimate the severity of the person’s drug or alcohol problem. Often, even the families are not completely aware of how bad the problem is.

Reasons for this are:

Drug abusers can use substances without their families or friends knowing about it

Symptoms of drug abuse and mental are so similar it is hard to separate the two

It takes time to untangle the effects of the two conditions

Often, mental health services are not prepared to deal with people who have both afflictions, especially when only one of the problems has been identified. Then, if both problems are identified, the person may be bounced from services for mental illness to services for their substance abuse. Uncoordinated services create a gap for a person with co-occurring disorders.

Dealing with substance abuse is a complex process for many. Dealing with mental disorders is also complicated. Not only are there psychological factors and the physical addiction, there is the social stigma attached to drug addiction or alcohol abuse. 

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