Many people withsubstance use disorder (addiction) have other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression which are now called co-occurring disorders. For good treatment results substance use disorder and other mental illnesses have to be treated together. Today, we are savvier in understanding and treating persons with co-occurring disorders, but we still have a way to go in utilizing best practices. If you or a loved one believes you or they have a co-occurring disorder, then you know that it can be a difficult illness to overcome. However, you are not alone. With the right kind of long term treatment, ongoing support, and healthy coping skills, you can learn how to not only survive, thrive.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines co-occurring disorders as “co-occurring substance use and mental disorders. Clients said to have co-occurring disorders have one or more disorders relating to the use of alcohol and/or other drugs of abuse as well as one or more mental disorders.”

Studies by SAMHSA in the U.S. indicate there are approximately 8-9 million people with this disorder with other data suggesting that 43-44% of adults have some type of mental illness and that 20% have some type of substance use disorder.

Where To Go For Co-occurring Disorders Help

Seek help for yourself. Help for co-occurring disorders can be given through outpatient or inpatient treatment. Also, some individual counselors may specialize in co-occurring disorders. It’s best to get an assessment from a psychiatrist before choosing a treatment. If you have suicidal thoughts, then get immediate help by calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room.

Take Care Of Your Physical Needs

Educate yourself through talking with others, reading books, or getting online information about your illness and ways to help you cope. There are also online blogs that can help.

Take good care of your physical health and have your doctor stay in contact with your treatment agency/counselor. This includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising.

Medicine Can Help Co-Occurring Disorders

Understand that while you have 2 separate disorders (mental illness and substance use disorder), recovery works best if the disorders are treated at the same time; this is called integrated treatment. Also know that you may be in different stages of your recovery for each of your disorders, i.e., you may be doing well with taking your psychiatric medicine and going to mental health treatment but you continue to drink alcohol and smoke pot.

Most co-occurring disorders can be aided through psychiatric medications. Work with your psychiatrist regarding these meds and stay on them. Too often, when people start to feel better with the medications, they stop taking them which causes a relapse into the disorder.

Therapists Are Necessary

Attend counseling as recommended. A therapist or social worker will help you to deal with your thoughts and feelings and ways to cope in a healthy manner. They can also help you to deal with the grief of having a chronic illness. This may include individual, group, and/or family counseling.

Most centers offer psychoeducational groups which are very valuable as they help you to learn about your disorders, triggers and urges to use substances, ways to cope with your thoughts and feelings, and how to prevent relapse for the co-occurring disorders.

Follow Up If If You Have A Case Manager

Follow up with your case manager that you may have through the mental health system. The case manager helps you to keep on track with your recovery, aids in getting you hooked up with other services such as housing or Social Security, as well as all other needs you may have.

Find Or Recovery Things You Love To Do

Use your natural coping skills and develop more ways to heal. Enjoy activities such as reading, playing non-violent video games, going for a walk, listening to music, and all other leisure activities you enjoy. If you are spiritual or religious, focus on those types of activities and beliefs that help you.

Join A Group

Attend recovery groups that address both the substance use and the mental illness/es. These groups include Dual Recovery Anonymous, Double Trouble in Recovery, and/or groups such as AA and NA as well as specific groups for coping with mental illness such as Emotions Anonymous or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Ask your family and/or friends to be involved as people who have this support tend to do better in recovery.

Continue to follow up with all recommendations. Co-occurring disorders are typically life-long illnesses and you may need to have all these supports to help you. But always remember – do your part for your recovery and you can be successful in coping and thriving in life.


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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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