What are Co-occurring Disorders and Why are they Difficult to Treat?

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Co-occurring disorders and dual-diagnosis have become buzz words among the addiction treatment industry in the last few years. However for those who aren’t familiar with co-occurring disorders, choosing the right addiction treatment center can be an even more overwhelming task.

Historically, co-occurring disorders have been misunderstood at best. Up until fairly recently, the vast majority of our understanding of addiction often came from religion, claiming that addictions were due to moral failings, evil desires, or selfish motives. Scientifically speaking however, addiction follows a clear behavioral pathology and is now a diagnosable disease listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Research from the last few decades has found an overwhelming link between addiction and other underlying mental health disorders.

As medical science discovered links between addiction and other mental health disorders, the term “co-occurring” was coined to indicate that other mental health disorders co-existed alongside addiction. Often interchangeable with the term “dual-diagnosis”, the terms indicate that another mental health disorder exists in conjunction with addiction and may complicate the diagnosis and/or treatment.

Co-Occurring Disorders Counselling

The current understanding of addiction and co-occurring disorders is a relatively recent discovery.

So recent in fact that research is ongoing as we speak. Medical researchers are still attempting to understand the causes and establish effective treatments for addiction. For decades, addiction treatment centers have relied on immersion in the 12-step process as a primary mode of effecting recovery in individuals struggling with addiction. From its inception, the 12-step process has been regarded as the most effective mode of treatment for both alcohol and drug addictions.

Addiction wasn’t officially added to the DSM as a primary mental health disorder until its third publication in 1980, though it was a sub-classification as far back as the 1950s. For reference, Alcoholics Anonymous was established in 1935, and alcohol dependence is outlined in numerous ancient texts dating back thousands of years. Considering humanity’s millennia-long problems with addiction, the discoveries from the last 40 years of research make it quite a new science.

It was also around 1980 when clinicians began studying the correlations between addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Many different mental health disorders are diagnosed alongside addiction, but common ones are ADD/ADHD, depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psychotic disorders. Co-occurring disorders aren’t just diagnosed alongside addiction, but are closely related to the addiction disease process and must be treated alongside addiction in order for addiction treatment to be effective and recovery maintained.

Co-Occurring Disorders Group Activity

Co-occurring disorders are believed to play a large part in chronic relapse.

It’s the answer that science has been trying to find for centuries. Why is it so difficult to stop drinking or using drugs? Why is relapse such a problem after treatment?

As it turns out, the presence of untreated co-occurring disorders can lead an individual to self-medicate with mind-altering substances. Even more interesting is the fact that people with certain disorders often seek similar substances to ease their co-occurring disorders. For example, people who struggle with ADD/ADHD or anxiety may seek out methamphetamine or cocaine. Those with PTSD or depression often seek out opioids, and those with psychotic disorders look to marijuana. Therefore, knowing an individual’s drug of choice can be an indicator of the underlying mental conditions co-occurring with addiction.

If an individual receives treatment for addiction but not the co-occurring disorder, then the risk of relapse is greatly increased. The individual will continue to seek relief for the symptoms of the untreated co-occurring disorder. This is why its especially important to find an addiction treatment center that is equipped to treat not just the addiction, but the underlying co-occurring disorder as well.

Co-Occurring Disorders & Substance Abuse

The effective treatment of addiction relies on the discovery and treatment of co-occurring disorders.

All residential treatment centers have a near-100% success rate of addiction treatment while an individual is enrolled. However once an individual returns to real life, mental health symptoms often lead to relapse and even overdose. While the science of addiction relapse is in its infancy, evidence has shown that the treatment of underlying mental health disorders greatly improves the efficacy of addiction treatment.

Understanding the role of co-occurring disorders in addiction treatment is important when choosing an addiction treatment center. Knowing the capabilities and certifications of a treatment center will help us determine whether its a good fit for our loved one. It is often recommended to seek the assistance of a Treatment Consultant or Case Manager to help determine the appropriate level of care and find a reputable addiction treatment center.

For more information about co-occurring disorders, treatment plans, and family recovery, contact Drew Horowitz & Associates today.

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