Battling drug or alcohol addiction is tough, but when a co-occurring disorder becomes part of that equation, things can quickly go from bad to worse. Sadly, the latter is the reality for many Americans, according to multiple studies. For those who may have never heard of a co-occurring disorder, also known as a dual diagnosis, it is the co-existence of a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. And it is a common phenomenon that has and is continuing to ruin the lives of many people. According to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, some 9.5 million people in the U.S. have a co-occurring disorder. That’s no small number.

What Causes a Co-Occurring Disorder?

The cause of a co-occurring disorder is different for everyone. However, multiple studies, including one published by the Cleveland Clinic, an esteemed nonprofit academic medical center in Cleveland, Ohio, found that genetics and environmental factors, namely stress and trauma, are two major contributors. Sometimes, genetics or environmental factors trigger depression or another mental illness, which drives some to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Other times, those factors play a part in some experimenting with drugs or alcohol and ultimately falling victim to addiction. And as a byproduct of doing so, they develop a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Common Co-Occurring Disorder Symptoms

When someone has a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis, they often struggle with symptoms related to the drug they are abusing and symptoms specific to their mental illness simultaneously. Some of those drug-related symptoms include the following:

  • Intense cravings
  • Increased drug or alcohol tolerance
  • An inability to maintain focus
  • Continuing to use drugs or alcohol despite obvious health risks
  • Being preoccupied with getting and abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when forced to go too long without drugs, alcohol, or both
  • Having a hard time getting through the day without drugs or alcohol

According to physicians and addiction therapists in rehab facilities across the U.S., the following are some of the most common symptoms exhibited by individuals who have received a formal co-occurring diagnosis:

  • Extreme changes in mood
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • An inability to function at work or school
  • Avoidance
  • Suicidal ideations

Treatments for Co-Occurring Disorders

According to most physicians, therapists, and addiction experts, treatments of co-occurring disorders require a two-pronged approach. That means individuals must receive the treatments necessary to overcome not only the physical but also psychological aspects of their addiction. Generally speaking, the first step toward overcoming a co-occurring disorder involves detox, the process in which the body naturally rids itself of drugs and other harmful contaminants once someone stops using. Depending on the individual’s drug of choice, detox starts within hours or days of someone consuming their final alcoholic beverage or the last dose of their preferred drug. The second step toward overcoming a co-occurring disorder involves psychotherapy. This co-occurring disorder treatment usually comprises cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) with a licensed therapist. Both are ideal for those with one or more of the following co-occurring conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Along with psychotherapy sessions, many rehab facilities provide FDA-approved medications to help individuals cope with the withdrawal symptoms related to their mental health diagnosis and symptoms they might be experiencing during detox. Some of these medications include the following:

  • Acamprosate
  • Buprenorphine
  • Disulfiram
  • Lofexidine
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone
  • Wellbutrin
  • Zyban

The Biggest Challenges When It Comes To Dual Diagnosis Treatments

One of the two biggest challenges when it comes to dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder treatments is relapse. According to the National Institutes of Health, individuals who have a drug or alcohol problem coupled with a mental illness are more likely to relapse than individuals with a stand-alone addiction or mental health problem. The second biggest challenge rests with the rehab facility. Some facilities do individuals with a co-occurring condition a disservice by failing to treat their addiction and mental illness as one. Successful recovery requires treating mental illness and addiction as a singular disease when someone is battling a co-occurring disorder.

In summary, a co-occurring diagnosis does make addiction recovery slightly more challenging. But that doesn’t mean doing so is impossible. With help from the right addiction recovery program from a licensed rehab facility, individuals struggling with addiction and mental illness can overcome both demons and go on to live a happy and more fulfilling life.