Co-Occurring Disorders – When Addiction and Mental Illness Occur Together

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A co-occurring disorder is when a mental health condition co-occurs with another addictive disorder. For example, the mental disorder depression can co-occur with substance use disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, and many others.

What Does Addiction Do To The Brain?

To better understand how substance use disorders and mental health disorders co-occur, it helps to recognize that both are chronic brain disorders. Biochemical changes happening in the brain due to substance abuse occur in the very same parts of the brain impacted by mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. 

The human body is a complex machine that requires constant maintenance for it to function correctly. When we consume alcohol or drugs, our bodies begin producing chemicals called neurotransmitters which affect how we feel, think, act, sleep, eat, etc. These chemical changes occur within minutes of consumption and last up to several hours after use. In some cases, these effects may be positive, while others have negative consequences.

The Biochemistry Of Addiction in Brain Function

The brain response of the neurotransmitter dopamine is one of several neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating mood, motivation, pleasure, attention, memory, learning, movement, sleep/wake cycles, appetite, sexual behavior, and other functions. Stimulant drugs, such as the illegal drugs cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, heroin, nicotine, etc., all work by increasing dopamine release within the brain. When these chemicals bind with receptors located throughout the body, they produce pleasurable effects. 

Addiction and substance abuse are both characterized by compulsive behavior. Both substance abuse and addiction are often caused by mental illness or trauma. Some people with addictions who use drugs may be trying to self-medicate for depression or anxiety. Others may be using drugs to cope with stress or trauma from past events, resulting in co-occurring substance abuse problems.

Genetic Vulnerability

You may wonder if there is a genetic predisposition to addictions and mental health issues. The genes responsible for these conditions are inherited from our parents. However, we cannot predict who will develop co-occurring disorders. Environmental risk factors such as childhood traumas, family history, peer pressure, social environment, culture, religion, socioeconomic status, access to treatment, availability of substances, etc., can contribute to an individual’s risk for developing addictive behaviors and a co-occurring substance abuse problem.

Common Warning Signs Accompanying Mental Health Issues and Drug Addiction:

  • Depression is usually accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.
  • Anxiety disorders can be characterized by restlessness, irritability, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Bipolar disorder varies between alternating periods of mania and depression.
  • Schizophrenia is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking.
  • Addiction is marked by risky behavior, avoidance, change in appearance, insomnia.

A Comprehensive Approach to Co-Occurring Disorders: Addiction Treatment and Mental Health Treatment

Effective treatment for mental disorders and substance abuse can be done simultaneously using an integrated treatment approach. Long-term recovery benefits from parallel treatment for both disorders from the same team or provider. Depending on what issues you have. Integrative treatment for addiction is based on the belief that the body is a whole system, not just a collection of organs or parts. It focuses on treating the whole person rather than just one piece.

Integrated Treatment Options on the Path to Recovery

An integrated substance abuse treatment program provides comprehensive care for individuals suffering from coexisting psychiatric conditions and addictions. This type of treatment aims to help clients achieve long-term sobriety through individualized programs designed specifically for each client’s needs. This includes addressing any underlying causes of their condition and providing them with the tools necessary to maintain abstinence. There are many different addiction resources and types of treatment options available depending upon your specific situation.

Psychiatric Treatments: Treating patients with mental health problems may include medication, self-help measures, lifestyle changes, behavioral treatments, and peer support. 

Substance Abuse Treatments: For substance abuse or substance misuse problem, there could be treatments such as behavioral therapy, prescription medications, and support groups, such as 12-step groups.

Co-Occurring Disorders

What Does an Integrated Treatment Plan Look Like?

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT: teaches us how to identify negative thoughts and replace those thoughts with positive ones. By doing so, reduces emotional distress and improves mood. In addition, CBT has been shown to reduce alcohol consumption and improve sleep quality.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT helps people learn skills to manage emotions effectively. These techniques teach us to regulate anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, sadness, and other challenging emotions. They also provide strategies to cope with stressors and situations that trigger unwanted emotions.
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:  MBSR uses mindfulness meditation practices to increase awareness of present moment experiences without judgment.
  • Contingency Management: Contingent reinforcement refers to rewarding desirable behaviors while punishing undesirable ones. 
  • Motivational enhancement: Helps people to increase their motivation to make positive changes in the treatment process.
  • Support Groups for Co-occurring Disorders: Support group meetings offer mutual encouragement among participants who share similar struggles. Participants often find these groups helpful because they allow them to connect with others going through similar challenges.
  • Medically Managed Detox Treatment: Medications used during detoxification can ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse by reducing cravings and increasing energy levels.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Programs: An intensive form of rehab where patients receive medical supervision 24 hours per day. Patients will typically attend daily counseling sessions, participate in educational classes, and undergo physical rehabilitation.
  •  Outpatient Rehabilitation Program: A less intense version of residential rehab, outpatient rehab allows patients to continue living independently but still receives regular checkups and follow-up visits.

Hope for Healing from Dual Disorders

There is always hope, no matter what you are facing. Drug abuse problems and mood disorders are both treatable conditions. The journey of recovery with co-occurring disorders takes courage, commitment, and, most importantly, time. However, the future can be better.

Those who have experienced recovery from mental health problems and substance use often report different experiences during their sequential treatment recovery process. For example, many people say that they dealt with their substance abuse differed from how they handled other aspects of life after recovering from depression. Some people find that dealing with their substance use issues helps them deal better with different challenges in their lives. A comprehensive treatment program with combinations of treatments will increase success. 

Recovery Perspective and Healthy Behaviors

Recovering from recurring mistakes is part of the process. Don’t be discouraged if a relapse occurs. Slipups and setbacks happen along the way, but with commitment and hard work, most people recover from a relapse and continue their journey to recovery.

Peer support can make a difference. You may want to join a self-help support group. A support group provides the opportunity to talk to other people who know what you’re going through and learn from their experiences. It’s also important to remember that your family members and friends care about you and want you to get healthy again. They’ll do anything possible to help you succeed.

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