Mental Health Comorbidity with Substance Use Disorders

People diagnosed with substance use disorder may also struggle with mental health conditions. Oftentimes, continued use of mind-altering substances can suppress symptoms associated with mental health conditions, leaving the person unaware of their co-occurring condition.  

What is comorbidity? A comorbid, or co-occurring, disorder refers to the state of having two or more diseases occurring either one after the other or simultaneously. This article discusses mental health and substance abuse comorbidity, its risk factors, and treatment.

Comorbidity in Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

Comorbid substance abuse is not limited to mental health conditions and can also involve HIV infections, AIDS, and viral hepatitis, mainly due to needle sharing. However, the associations are higher in the realm of mental health, where 9.2 million of people who use illicit drugs also have some form of mental health condition.

Although substance use disorder and mental illness often co-occur, it does not mean that one causes the other. However, there are certain mental health states that might cause a person to self-medicate, and develop a dependence on drugs and other substances. For instance, somebody who is going through comorbid anxiety and depression might use alcohol or opioids to self-medicate to ease the negative feelings they are experiencing. As the substances slowly alter parts of the brain, one might start seeking their rewarding effects more frequently, resulting in an even greater dependence.

Common Risks Factors for Comorbid Disorders

The direct cause of comorbidity is still unknown but there are certain factors that increase the likelihood of co-occurrence. Environmental influences, like trauma or stress, can contribute to having both mental health and substance use disorders.

Research also suggests that genetic factors may also play a role in comorbidity, particularly in starting the use of addictive substances that later develop into dependence and disruptive behavior. Some scientists claim that the addictions can be moderately to highly heritable, depending on the degree of genetic relationship one has with the relative who has fallen into addiction.

Age can also be a factor in comorbidity. Teens, for example, are more prone to impulsive and risk-taking behaviors, making them statistically more likely to try substances.

Finally, addiction being a chronic brain disease itself is a risk factor for comorbidity with mental illness. Drugs alter key brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions, such as the ability to control compulsions and make logical decisions.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Comorbid Disorders

The high rate of comorbidity between substance abuse and mental illness necessitates a comprehensive treatment plan that diagnoses and addresses both issues. There are different ways to treat substance addiction and mental illness. Health care providers and rehabilitation specialists will create a program that can treat both through concurrent and separate approaches. Some of the therapies that are used for comorbid conditions are:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Helps to prevent relapse by anticipating potential roadblocks, enhancing self-control, and developing effective coping mechanisms
  • Assertive community treatment: Focuses on a customized treatment approach involving community outreach
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy: Focuses on preventing self-harm behaviors and drug use
  • Contingency management: Offers rewards for practicing healthy behaviors
  • Therapeutic communities: Involves long-term residential therapies that aim to help a person get back into society

Start Recovery with MATClinics

Comorbidity disorders involving mental illness and substance abuse can affect people of any age and background. While the conditions are often recurrent, they are also highly treatable with the right combination of psychiatric, psychological, and medical interventions.

MATClinics provides a place of refuge for people who are struggling with comorbidities in their addiction recovery journey. Our experienced and caring specialists will create a personalized treatment plan that consists of behavioral health, medical, and case management interventions to guide you toward the right path to a full recovery. Contact us today to learn more about our program.

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