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Individuals who engage in alcohol and drug use are uniquely vulnerable to developing mental health disorders and vice versa. The presence of two or more disorders is referred to as co-occurring disorders. It is crucial to understand that co-occurring disorders are comorbid, meaning that the interactions that occur between each disorder can exacerbate the course of both, as explained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Furthermore, learning about co-occurring disorders and their risk factors can help individuals and families seek treatment and begin recovery as soon as possible to prevent co-occurring disorders from impairing their ability to function normally in daily life. 

At CCM, we offer concierge services to individuals and families seeking healing from substance use as well as mental and behavioral health disorders. Though co-occurring disorders are complex and pose unique challenges for treatment and recovery, we at CCM are confident in our ability to curate effective treatment plans for clients to successfully establish and maintain recovery from any number of conditions and symptoms. 

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

As SAMHSA explains, “Co-occurring disorders may include any combination of two or more substance use disorders and mental disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).” Some common examples of mental health disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), personality disorders, and more. Meanwhile, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by SAMHSA, approximately 9.2 million adults have co-occurring disorders in the United States. 

Contrary to what some may believe, the high prevalence of co-occurring disorders does not always indicate that one caused the other. However, it is possible that untreated mental health disorders can contribute to substance use and addiction through self-medicating practices. Self-medicating occurs when an individual uses alcohol or other drugs to treat, cope with, or otherwise numb internalized distress and symptoms often caused by mental health disorders. 

Though self-medicating practices may provide temporary relief from symptoms, once the effects of the substances wear off, an individual may seek out use in greater intensities and duration to achieve the desired effects. In turn, an individual’s tolerance will rise, and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms will become apparent, which will perpetuate continued substance use. Soon enough, substance use disorder (SUD) will develop, and an individual will not only struggle with the symptoms of an untreated mental health disorder but also SUD.

Self-medicating is not the only way that an individual may develop co-occurring disorders. Alternatively, individuals who engage in alcohol and drug use frequently (and perhaps develop SUD or addiction as a result) experience increased risks of developing mental health disorders as well. This is because repeated substance use triggers lasting alterations to brain structure and functioning that make an individual more vulnerable to mental illness. 

Lastly, co-occurring disorders can also develop separately from one another, as both SUD and mental health disorders share many of the same underlying risk factors. 

Risk Factors for Co-Occurring Disorders

Simply put, risk factors increase an individual’s vulnerability to using alcohol and other drugs as well as developing addiction or mental health disorders. There are many risk factors for co-occurring disorders. To better understand them, it can be helpful to break risk factors down into the following categories:

Genetic Vulnerabilities and Biological Factors

As explained by the National Insitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “It is estimated that 40–60 percent of an individual’s vulnerability to substance use disorders is attributable to genetics.” For instance, individuals who have a family history of substance abuse and/or mental health disorders are more likely to develop one of these conditions themselves. 

Additionally, certain biological characteristics, such as gender or ethnicity, can also increase an individual’s risk of developing co-occurring disorders. Moreover, as The Journal of Adolescent Health explains:

Certain developmental groups, particularly adolescents and young adults, may be particularly vulnerable to developing addictions as specific brain regions, specifically those involved in exerting behavioral control, typically mature less rapidly than do brain regions involved in promoting motivated behaviors like substance use.

In this way, the age when an individual is exposed to alcohol and other drugs has a significant impact on their unique vulnerability to addiction and mental health disorders throughout their life. 

Environmental Influences

In addition to genetic and biological factors, unique environmental influences also contribute to an individual’s risk of developing co-occurring disorders. Environmental risk factors include physical or verbal abuse, maltreatment, intense family dysfunction and conflict, divorce, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Yet, environmental influences also include bullying, peer pressure, social isolation, and more. Individuals who grow up in chaotic, stressful, or neglectful environments are especially vulnerable to using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate low self-esteem, low self-worth, and interpersonal dysfunction not just during adolescence but also throughout adulthood. Needless to say, the effects of untreated trauma linger, and symptoms of untreated trauma and PTSD may not be evident until months or years after a traumatic event occurs. 

Likewise, these experiences can contribute to the development of other mental health disorders as well since dysfunctional or otherwise stressful home environments often inform problematic patterns of thought and behavior. These patterns can alter brain structure and function in a similar way to drug abuse, causing disorders like depression, anxiety, and more throughout adulthood. 

Co-occurring disorders are the presence of two or more mental health disorders or SUD that occur in tandem. These types of disorders are co-morbid, meaning that the progression of each condition can worsen the prognosis of both. If you or a loved one is vulnerable to developing co-occurring disorders or are already struggling with them, it is crucial to seek professional treatment and support as soon as possible. This will reduce the potential for worsening consequences as well as encourage you to establish sobriety and recovery sooner rather than later. At CCM, we provide concierge services to individuals and families in approaching or experiencing crises. Learn more about our services by calling (855) 467-3226 today.