Co-Occurring Disorders: The Risks and Dangers

Co-occurring disorders

Photo by Lukka Richie

Co-Occurring Disorders: The Risks and Dangers

By Jennifer Woodson

For many people with mental health issues, learning to cope with the overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or schizophrenia can be extremely difficult. Because these issues are all so complicated and varied, the reasons a sufferer begins to abuse substances are varied as well. They may be dealing with the aftermath of a particular stressful event, or they may use a substance to numb their pain or feel “normal”. It’s important to be supportive of your loved one with a co-occurring disorder and find ways to help him seek the treatment he needs.

Because mental health issues and substance abuse occur together and make each other worse, it’s imperative that they are treated together. Most health experts agree that treating one without the other ultimately won’t cause either one of them to improve, and the professionals at a substance abuse treatment facility likely won’t be prepared to handle matters having to do with mental health. Taking care of both disorders at once is called integrated treatment.

An individual who is dealing with a co-occurring disorder is at risk for many issues; here are a few of the risks involved with neglecting to seek diagnosis and treatment.

They often mask one another

Because mental illness is often masked by substance abuse–and vice versa–it can be difficult to properly diagnose a co-occurring disorder. A person with a dependence on alcohol may be using that substance to numb himself due to the pain of depression, but because the symptoms of both are so similar, it can be hard to detect. Also, a substance can make a mental health issue even worse, causing the symptoms to change over time. This can also lead to the individual receiving a misdiagnosis or going for help from the wrong place.

“Nearly 74 percent of Americans who seek help for depression or symptoms of depression will go to a primary care physician rather than a mental health professional,” writes Mental Health America.

They can cause problems elsewhere

Co-occurring disorders can cause issues in many aspects of an individual’s life. They can lead to problems at work or school and in relationships; they can cause physical health issues; they can put the individual at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, as people who are under the influence of a substance are more likely than others to engage in unsafe sex. When untreated, these disorders can cause even bigger problems.

They can cause a seemingly endless cycle

Because individuals with co-occurring disorders use substances to help balance out their feelings–unknowingly making those feelings even worse and more difficult to deal with–a cycle is created that can seem impossible to get out of.

“The relationships between severe mood disorder and substance use problems certainly go in both directions — with people using substances to blunt severe symptoms, and those substances making symptoms worse in the long run,” says psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Simon.

Feelings of hopelessness may follow, prompting suicidal thoughts or even self-harm. It’s important, then, for these individuals to receive the proper treatment from professionals who understand the benefits of treating both the substance abuse and the mental health disorder. For more information about how to help someone who is battling a co-occurring disorder, read on here.

For people who are dealing with the overwhelming feelings that can come with a mental health issue, their outlook may become bleak. They may give up things they once enjoyed doing, or they might isolate themselves from friends and family. Help your loved one find the right sort of treatment, as well as support that will continue into the future to ensure there are no relapses.

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