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What's a Co-occurring Disorder?

Co-Occurring Disorders…Wait, You Can Have More Than One Disorder?

Substance use rarely happens in a vacuum. When it accompanies a mental illness, we call this a co-occurring disorder. Sometimes, you may hear it referred to as comorbidity. In treatment, we must not isolate one from the other. Harmony Healing NJ commits to treating humans as whole beings. For this reason, we can help both substance abuse as well as mental illness. In this blog, Harmony Healing NJ considers the following items:

  • The characteristics of co-occurring disorders?
  • Types of mental illnesses that can co-occur with substance use disorder.
  • Why is it important to treat mental illnesses along with substance use disorder?
  • What options exist for dual diagnosis treatment?
  • How to find more information about co-occurring disorders.

What Are the Characteristics of a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Many substances may appear to offset symptoms of mental illness. For example, consider opioids. Opioids relieve pain. It makes sense for a person under physical or emotional distress to want relief. But the effects of the opioids will eventually wear off. And the distress returns. Co-occurring disorders can even lead to abuse of one’s own prescription. Some medications, like benzodiazepines, can alleviate symptoms of mental anguish.  However, people can easily become addicted to benzodiazepines. If a dependent person stops taking benzos, they may experience rebound symptoms. Sometimes, the anxiety and depression, for which one took the benzo, can come back even worse.

What Kinds of Mental Illnesses Can Co-Occur with Substance Use Disorder?

Sometimes, treatment providers use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V. One need not memorize all of the DSM-V criteria for substance use disorder (SUD). Instead, remember the key element of compulsion. A person suffering from SUD cannot white-knuckle their way to sobriety. Furthermore, people who struggle with SUD may also suffer from one of the following mental illnesses:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: a persistent, nagging feeling that something awful will happen
  • Bipolar disorder: moods shift between exhilaration and depression
  • Major depressive disorder: unrelenting feelings of sadness, disgust, or grief
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: impulsive decisions and difficulty concentrating
  • Borderline personality disorder: mood, affect, and actions out of sync

Why Is It Important To Treat Mental Illnesses Along With Substance Use Disorder?

One must not assume that sobriety marks the end of recovery. Sobriety and abstinence make for worthwhile goals. However, we must not stop there. Sobriety elevates us. It allows us to stand above the rest of our lives. From that perspective, we can see the flaws and imperfections in our lives. After we become sober, we can bring stability to our lives. In recovery, we can more deeply consider our mental health. Sobriety itself does not magically end mental illness. Instead, it lets us evaluate our mental wellness. In addition, just like substance abuse, mental illness connects to every other area of our lives. Below, find a list of factors that can influence one’s mental health:

  • One’s internal thought patterns
  • Diet & nutrition
  • Sleep habits
  • Quality of relationships
  • Work, career, and extracurricular activities

What Options Exist For Dual Diagnosis Treatment?

The term “dual diagnosis” refers to treating both a mental illness as well as substance abuse. Simultaneously, you can receive treatment for both. Substance abuse and mental health have a deep relationship. Overall, the two can feed into one another. Nevertheless, we must not assume that one causes the other. To try and nail down a specific “cause” often impedes our progress.


We can treat some instances of substance abuse with medication for opioid use disorder/medication-assisted treatment. For example, MOUD/MAT attempts to wean a person off of a particular substance. As an example, think about buprenorphine. Medications like buprenorphine and methadone have affected long-term changes in those struggling with opioid use disorder (OUD).


Above all, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help relieve anxiety and depression. However, they do not take effect immediately. Rather, they build gradually when taken over a period. In addition, they can prove instrumental in dual diagnosis treatment.

Recovery Journals

Oftentimes, recovery journals can aid in both mental wellbeing as well as substance abuse. Sometimes, writing helps us get our thoughts out of our heads and onto paper. Importantly, it helps us define what truly happens inside our minds. Many times, when we can see it, then we can deal with it.


We derive our English word “therapy” from a Greek word. Therapeia means, “curing, healing, service done to the sick.” Similarly, like our bodies, our minds can become sick. That sickness might look like depression. Or it might resemble substance abuse. Regardless, these sicknesses need curing and healing.

What If I Want More Information About Co-Occurring Disorders?

Have you read about co-occurring disorders this far? If so, thank you. Harmony Healing feels grateful that you have kept reading. Do you or someone that you love struggle with a substance use disorder? If so, please contact us. In addition, if you have concerns about mental wellness and would like more information, call us. Or send us an email.

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