The Link Between Co-Occurring Disorders and Substance Abuse

Home > The Link Between Co-Occurring Disorders and Substance Abuse

Many alcoholics and drug addicts also suffer from a mental health condition. It goes both ways, too—those with severe mental illness often struggle with substance abuse. In fact, national surveys have concluded that roughly half of adults in the U.S. with a psychiatric diagnosis have co-occurring alcoholism or drug addiction. Though there is less data on adolescents, research shows people under 18 who abuse substances have higher rates of mental illness[1].

There is undoubtedly a link between co-occurring disorders and substance abuse, and the interconnectedness should not be overlooked. Northbound Treatment takes an evidence-based approach to rehab. We’ve seen first-hand how much more effective dual diagnosis treatment is than addressing conditions separately. Find helpful information, statistics, and valuable insight about co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders below.

Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders Are Common

With many different illegal and prescription drugs in the world and a long list of diagnosable mental health conditions, there are virtually endless combinations of possible co-occurring disorders. That being said, some mental health conditions are seen more often in dual diagnoses than others.

For instance, among adults in the United States, anxiety coincides with substance abuse disorder (SUD) at higher rates than other psychiatric conditions. This includes generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and panic disorder[1]. 

About 43% of individuals in rehab for prescription narcotics have a co-occurring mental health condition, most often anxiety or depression[1]. Benzodiazepines (or “benzos”) are prescribed to treat a number of conditions, including anxiety. While they can help a person feel calm and relaxed, benzos are extremely addictive, leading many with anxiety disorder to develop a dependence.

Additionally, roughly one out of every four people who suffer from a severe mental illness also abuse drugs or alcohol. This includes major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder[1]. 

Alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) is present in a large portion of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Those with depression, chronic stress, codependency, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders often struggle with alcoholism. Opioid abuse is also one of the most common dual diagnosis examples among people with PTSD, depression, and past trauma.

Why Are Co-Occurring Disorders So Common?

Why are co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders so common? The cause for either condition is identified on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, it’s apparent that a person turned to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for an underlying mental health condition. Sometimes, mental illness can develop as a result of a severe substance abuse issue. 

In many cases, the cause is unknown or difficult to pinpoint, as the symptoms of psychological disorders and addiction can look quite similar. Furthermore, behavioral issues are sometimes not blatantly obvious or severe enough to diagnose, and yet they can provoke substance abuse. On top of that, an addict’s memory of when they began using might not be accurate, or they may be unwilling to disclose all the details of their condition[1].

Though the link between co-occurring disorders is complex, medical studies have shed some light on possible explanations for the high rate of dual diagnoses. Research suggests that the prevalence of co-occurring disorders may be due to two primary factors: overlapping genetic predispositions and a confluence of environmental triggers[2].

Overlapping Genetic Predispositions

So, what are co-occurring disorders and where do they stem from? Some people are inherently more vulnerable to mental illness and substance abuse than others. Sadly, if a person is genetically predisposed to both, the overlapping vulnerabilities can lead to co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

A Confluence of Environmental Triggers 

Environmental triggers that can contribute to a mental health disorder and addiction include chronic stress, trauma, sudden or drastic change, relationship issues, and financial struggles. Early exposure to alcohol and drugs can also lead to addiction and mental illness. 

Another thing to note is that substance abuse disorder is technically a mental illness, albeit a preventable and treatable one. So, if a person is genetically vulnerable to psychiatric illness, they generally have a higher risk of addiction. 

Chemical dependence on drugs and alcohol disrupts the way an individual prioritizes their needs. The urgent desire to use substances trumps their other basic needs, weakening willpower and often leading to reckless behaviors. This pattern and the repercussions that go with it reflect the characteristics of many SMIs[2].

Co-Occurring Disorders in Children, Teens, and Young Adults

Addiction can occur at any age or stage of a person’s life, yet for many individuals, a substance abuse issue begins during adolescence (between ages 10 and 18). As it happens, this is also around the time when mental health conditions become apparent in some people[3]. 

Young adulthood can be an overwhelming, confusing, and volatile time. This leaves many people between the ages of 18 and 25 vulnerable to substance abuse and psychological distress. Sadly, the younger a person starts using drugs or alcohol, the higher their risk of long-term abuse and mental illness[3].

Substance Abuse and Brain Development

The human brain doesn’t mature completely until about age 24. While some portions of the brain develop earlier in life, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last to mature. The primary functions of the prefrontal cortex relate to things like decision making, risk assessment, judgment, and impulse control[4].

Without fully developed impulse control and the inability to comprehend the possible consequences of risky behaviors, adolescents and young adults are biologically at a higher risk for substance abuse. If you add in a genetic predisposition to addiction and mental illness or trauma, the chances of developing co-occurring disorders are even more bleak. The likelihood is reduced if a person isn’t introduced to drugs and alcohol early on, but by young adulthood, most people have been exposed to at least a few substances. 

Aside from early exposure to alcohol and drugs, children and teenagers diagnosed with mental health disorders are often more likely to struggle with substance abuse later in life. For instance, adolescents with depression face higher rates of alcoholism and drug addiction later in life. Likewise, teens and children diagnosed with bipolar disorder are more likely to have co-occurring substance abuse issues in adulthood than those with adult-onset bipolar disorder[3].

Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment

For over 30 years, Northbound Treatment’s rehabilitation center has been helping people of all ages and all walks of life overcome their addictions and reclaim their lives. Without addressing and treating co-occurring mental illness simultaneously with substance abuse, a person’s psychological state can worsen, potentially increasing the risk of relapse.

We want our clients to succeed not only with getting sober but also achieving life-long happiness and fulfillment. That’s why we’re proud to offer a comprehensive dual diagnosis program in Orange County. Treatment for co-occurring disorders is implemented into the full continuum of care we provide at our rehab centers. This includes an accredited detox program, inpatient treatment, outpatient rehab, and ongoing addiction support services.

Whether you’re already diagnosed with a mental health condition or think you may have one, your psychological state won’t be swept under the rug when you come to Northbound Treatment. Rehabilitation programs begin with a thorough assessment, during which we’ll go over all factors contributing to your substance abuse issues.

If you have a dual disorder, it will be implemented into your personalized co-occurring disorders treatment plan. During rehab, you’ll work with a designated care team of clinicians, addiction coaches, therapists, and counselors who all have your best interest in mind. We’ll help you heal mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually so that you can live the life you’ve always wanted.

Start the Journey to Recovery Today

Recovery is about more than getting clean and sober. It’s about taking a critical look at all underlying causes and triggers and developing new ways to cope. The path to recovery might be bumpy at times, but it will ultimately lead you to a better life.

If you or a loved one are struggling with co-occurring disorders and want to get help, the team at Northbound Treatment would love to hear from you. We’re proud to offer flexible treatment plans and high-quality, affordable care at all levels.

Northbound is in-network for most insurance plans in Southern California. Your insurance should cover at least a portion of both mental health and substance abuse treatment, and we can help you figure out what your options are for rehab. For any remaining costs, we can help you set up a payment plan that suits your needs.

Call us today at (888) 978-8649 to take the first step to recovery.

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