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What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

While the term is used regularly in therapeutic circles, you may have heard this term and found yourself asking what are co-occurring disorders.

Or perhaps you have been told that you are experiencing them, and you are looking for answers as to what this means and how to move forward from here. Whether by curiosity or need, continue reading below to find answers to these questions and more.

What are co-occurring disorders?

Co-occurring disorders are when a person is experiencing more than one ‘disorder’ or ‘illness’ at a time. They are also referred to as ‘dual diagnosis’, ‘comorbidities’, ‘coexisting disorders’, or other such phrases.

These terms are often used interchangeably by professionals but all refer to the same experience of two or more disorders occurring in one person.

Define co-occurring disorders

For a more precise definition, co-occurring disorders indicate the simultaneous presence of two or more mental health disorders or medical disorders in one individual.

The most common examples of these include an addiction as well as a mental health disorder, or ongoing mental health concerns in the presence of a chronic physical health condition.

Co-occurring disorders can exacerbate symptoms of each other, making their diagnosis and treatment complex and intricate. However, addressing both illnesses simultaneously is often the most effective strategy for achieving the best possible outcomes in treatment.

Examples of co-occurring disorders

The most common examples of co-occurring disorders typically arise in the context of ‘substance use disorders’, more commonly referred to as addictions. This is typically due to the ‘chicken and the egg’ question that can arise between addiction and mental illness such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

Individuals may either turn to addiction as a means of coping with their mental health symptoms, or they may develop those symptoms over time as the long term effects of addiction start to impact their psychological wellbeing.

This vicious cycle can also be seen in other co-occurring disorders such as physical pain and addiction/mental illness, or dual mental illness such as eating disorders and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder to name a few.

Symptoms of co-occurring disorders

Since ‘co-occurring disorders’ refers to any two coexisting illnesses, it is difficult to precise what the symptoms of co-occurring disorders are or how one might know that they are suffering from them.

Someone who is suffering from chronic back pain and depression will have very different symptoms from someone who is suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia for example. The best summary possible is to look out for any major changes in behaviour: for example changes in sleeping patterns, appetite, social engagement, appearance, responsibilities and more.

Another key sign to look out for is if someone is increasingly isolating themselves from both their relationships and their responsibilities. The most sure way to know is to seek assessment and diagnosis from a trained professional.

Co-occurring disorders statistics

  • Co-occurring disorders are less rare than one might think, with up to 17% of the general population experiencing them at one point in their life.
  • This number increases amongst individuals with substance use disorder, with between 45%-55% experiencing addiction and a mental illness
  • The number increases for adolescents, with approximately 60% of youths suffering from a substance use disorder also having a co-occurring mental health disorder
  • Those suffering from two or more illness are more likely to end their lives by suicide, with up to 50% of individuals who die from suicide meeting such criteria
  • Despite the prevalence and risk of co-occurring disorders, only between 12%-20% of those suffering from them will ever receive simultaneous treatment for both conditions
  • Of those who do seek treatment, the completion rates of a treatment programme range from 30% to 50%

These statistics indicate not only that co-occurring disorders are life-threatening and more common than some may expect, but that they are severely undertreated. This speaks to not only the stigma and reluctance some may have in seeking out treatment, but also the complexity of managing and treating multiple illnesses simultaneously.

How are co-occurring disorders treated?

Due to the complex nature of co-occurring disorders, their treatment must involve an integrated and multidisciplinary approach where a team can work holistically to address all aspects of an individual’s health.

Addressing all relevant disorders comprehensively and in collaboration with a widely skilled team will increase the likelihood of long term recovery and an improved quality of life for the person being treated.

Comprehensive multidisciplinary treatment for a person suffering from co-occurring disorders should include:

  • Comprehensive Assessment: To identify all relevant disorders and concerns
  • Integrated Treatment Plan: An individualised plan that outlines treatment goals and interventions
  • Medication Management: Working closely with a psychiatrist, medical doctor, and nursing team to manage any mental health or physical health medication required
  • Individual Therapy: Regular one-to-one therapy with a mental health specialist to help address not only the symptoms, but the root causes of any disorders
  • Group Therapy: Research demonstrates time and time again the benefits of group therapy and supportive peer environments on long-term recovery
  • Psychoeducation: Knowledge is power, and the more a person can learn about their illnesses, mental health, relationships, and more, the more likely they are to succeed in improving their quality of life
  • Relapse Prevention: Developing strategies that will protect the hard work done during treatment is crucial to preventing a worsening of symptoms and managing triggers
  • Continued Care and Aftercare: Creating a system of ongoing support and follow-up care can be key to supporting someone in maintaining their recovery and supporting them in preventing relapse

In-patient clinics are a great place to start on this journey to recovery, and Clinic Les Alpes is one such facility that can offer all of the above and more.

If you are concerned about your own wellbeing, or that of a loved one, please feel free to reach out to us for more information.

Co-occurring disorders are a complex matter, and those suffering from them are at much higher risk of poor quality of life, lack of treatment, and ongoing suffering.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel that appropriate therapy and medication can ease the difficulty. It is clear that the answer to “What are co-occurring disorders?” is not a simple one, and that treatment is the best and most sure way to start on the road to recovery.

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