What Is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Life is rarely simple. Nothing about addiction is simple either. Actively using drugs or alcohol complicates our lives. Trying to recover from addiction can be complicated, too, even if the end result is better for us. However, sometimes addiction can be twice as hard when there is a co-occurring disorder

Defining Co-Occurring Disorder

A co-occurring disorder is when there is a substance use disorder (SUD) together with a mental health diagnosis. Formerly known as dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders can make treatment and recovery more complicated, though it is still possible. 

One reason it can be hard for someone to gain sobriety is that they may need to take medication regularly for a mental health diagnosis. This may seem counterintuitive to someone who has used drugs recreationally, until they understand that most of the medications used to treat mental illness will not make them high and are not addictive, but rather will help them find and maintain their mental health.

Types of Mental Health Disorders

There are many different types of mental health disorders. Some are more likely to co-occur with substance abuse, including (but not limited to):

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depressive disorder, encompassing many forms of depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorders, encompassing many forms of anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Each mental health diagnosis can be debilitating in their own right; however, they can be twice as difficult to live with when there is a co-occurring addiction. Whereas the goal of recovery is to get and remain sober, most mental health disorders require constant and continual maintenance, including taking medications consistently.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Illness

Mental illness and SUDs are intrinsically linked. Some people try to determine whether the mental illness was present first, and they sought to self-medicate with substances, or if the substance abuse began and the mental illness developed as a result of the addiction. 

Both scenarios are plausible because the two are so closely linked that they can cause an onset of the other. People with mental illness often turn to substances to self-medicate, and one of the side effects of an SUD can be the onset of a mental illness, because addiction also occurs in the brain. However, which came first does not matter when diagnosed with co-occurring disorders. What matters most is getting the appropriate treatment for both.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

Treating co-occurring disorders is getting better as education about having both an SUD and a mental illness helps healthcare providers find better ways to treat both simultaneously. Some people receive psychotherapy, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) or both. With the right evaluation, clinical team, and willingness of the individual, a person can overcome an SUD and maintain stable mental health.


October is National Depression Awareness Month. So many people struggle without knowing they have a co-occurring disorder. That does not need to be you. Contact DiscoveryMD today to change your life. Learn how to beat addictions, treat mental illness and find stability again. Our outpatient recovery programs are designed to offer the best in personalized medical and mental health treatment for those with co-occurring disorders. Find peace and gain control of your life.

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