What is a Co-Occurring Disorder

What is a Co-Occurring Disorder

Addiction And Other Conditions

You may have heard the term co-occurring disorder. But what is a co-occurring disorder? For many years now, the medical community has recognized drug and alcohol addiction as a medical condition. These conditions are known as substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD.) The medical community has developed many effective tools to treat SUD/AUD, from medications to therapies. However, many patients have other conditions that affect their addiction. These conditions are called co-occurring disorders, or comorbidities.  Here we will cover:

  • Types of common co-occurring disorders
  • Why are mental health disorders common with addiction
  • How these disorders are treated during recovery

Common Types Of Co-Occurring Disorders

The most common comorbidities for patients with AUD/SUD are mental conditions. In fact, about half of all patients with an SUD also live with a mental condition. If you’re wondering what is a co-occurring disorder, anxiety disorders, seem to be most common. These can include the following:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic Disorder

Other mental disorders can coexist with addiction at high rates as well. Some examples of these include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychotic illness
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Why Are Mental Health Conditions Common With Addiction?

Pre-existing Conditions

Often, patients who develop AUD/SUD have a pre-existing mental health condition. In some cases, patients begin using substances because they find relief from their symptoms. For example, the temporary high felt from certain substances may temporarily calm someone with anxiety. By doing this, the user self-medicates, often without knowing that is what they are doing. Self medication is common among those whose pre-existing condition has not been diagnosed. Many people haven’t had occasion to ask themselves what is a co-occurring disorder because they have never been diagnosed. 

Some research suggests that genetics may play a role as well. Patients with certain mental conditions may be genetically at a higher risk for developing SUD. At the same time, genetics may influence certain patients with mental conditions to try risky behaviors. This is a relatively new area of study, so it may take several years to better understand these links.

Conditions Caused By Addiction

It is believed that addiction itself can cause or worsen many mental disorders as well. Addiction happens when a substance “hijacks” the brain of the patient. When a person uses a substance for the first time, the brain sends out pleasure/reward signals. This is the “rush” or “high” people refer to. Over time, though, the substance rewires the brain’s neuro pathways. Instead of rewarding use, the brain now sends out distress signals for lack of use. This is called withdrawal. The physical distress symptoms caused by withdrawal can include feelings of anxiety, depression, and scattered thinking. Patients will begin to order their daily activities around using or getting more substance to use. Many of the same neuro pathways hijacked in addiction are those that are affected by mental disorders.

What is a Co-occurring Disorder and How Are They Treated in Recovery?

Quality treatment programs are well-equipped to offer treatment for both SUD and co-occurring mental conditions. Programs like ours are designed to treat the whole person, not just the addiction issue itself. If you are looking for treatment options, congratulations! Help is available, and we want you to receive the best care possible. Generally speaking, any quality treatment program will involve a medical screening, detox, and an extended treatment program.

Medical Screening

Treatment is a complex medical undertaking that focuses on physical and mental health. Before you enter a program, you will undergo a comprehensive medical screening. Be sure to tell your care team about any medications you are taking, as well as any substances you have used. Be prepared to answer questions about your family history, especially with addiction or mental health conditions. You may also be asked about your living situation. This information will help your care team build a treatment plan specific to your needs. If there is a co-existing disorder present, it is most likely to be diagnosed while you’re in treatment. 


For your treatment to be effective, any substances will need to be flushed from your system. This process is known as detoxification, or detox. Depending on your needs, this may be either an inpatient or outpatient process. Your care team may administer medication to control withdrawal symptoms. This process typically lasts around a week.


During treatment, you will meet regularly with medical personnel as well as a psychiatrist. Medications can be prescribed or adjusted as needed. You will also spend time in individual and group therapy. Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral therapy (CBT) are helpful both for addiction and mental health treatment. Many centers also offer trauma therapy for patients with past traumatic experiences. Additionally, your treatment center may offer holistic therapies such as acupuncture, meditation, or art therapy.

Get Help for Addiction and a Co-Occurring Disorder

Contact us today for more information about our programs and how we can help. We hope we have done a through job of answering the questions ‘what is a co-occurring disorder?’ and provided you with useful information. Addiction is a medical condition, not a moral failure. You deserve quality, compassionate care without judgement. We accept most major insurance programs. Let us help you live the fulfilling life you deserve!

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