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Tips for Studying and Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Mental illnesses are complex and often difficult to diagnose and treat. When two or more disorders come together, the complexity of the individual’s needs and symptoms skyrocket. Treating multiple illnesses at once is challenging and requires a lot of studying and a deep understanding of mental disorders.

What exactly are co-occurring disorders, and how are they different from typical mental disorders?

Whether you’re studying to become a mental health practitioner or believe you are struggling with co-occurring disorders, you must do your research to understand how mental health illnesses can interact with each other. Here, we will discuss co-occurring disorders, their symptoms, and how to treat them.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

While many individuals may have one specific mental illness, those with co-occurring disorders simultaneously experience two or more mental health illnesses. This can involve multiple mental illnesses, addictions, or eating disorders happening concurrently. For example, someone who suffers from alcoholism and depression has co-occurring disorders.

One disorder often forms after another, making it easy to pinpoint. For example, many individuals with mental illnesses will try to self-medicate with either prescription medications, alcohol, or drugs. However, how the two ailments affect each other can lead to serious issues for the sufferer. 

Common disorders that can become co-occurring disorders include, but are not limited to:

  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention disorders (ADHD and ADD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Mood and/or personality disorders
  • ASD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychosis

These individual mental illnesses can interact both with each other and any addictions that may form to treat the disorder(s). Depending on the specific co-occurring disorders present, treatment and diagnosis will vary.

Co-occurring disorders can often interact negatively with each other and cause the individual’s mental health to plummet. If you believe you or a loved one may have co-occurring disorders, it’s crucial to reach out for help as soon as possible.

How Co-Occurring Disorders Present Themselves

Co-occurring disorders can present themselves in various ways, depending on an individual’s exact disorders. However, there are warning signs that someone may be developing co-occurring disorders. Here are a few warning signs, as well as other ways that co-occurring disorders can present themselves.


Alcohol is a common crutch that those with mental illnesses depend on. This can quickly turn into an addiction, so pay close attention to how much alcohol your loved ones are drinking. They may be using it to cover up their other illnesses.

Alcoholism can also severely worsen existing mental health disorders, particularly depression. This is because alcohol is a depressant on its own and can intensify existing feelings of depression. Someone suffering from alcoholism and depression may be more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm, so be wary of anyone relying too heavily on alcohol.

Drug Use

Regardless of the type of drug being used, relying too heavily on drugs to cope with mental illnesses can become an addiction. If your loved ones are using more pain killers, antidepressants, or any other medication type, they may be developing an addiction. A drug and alcohol counselor can help them work through their issues and get them started on a path to recovery.

If the individual uses more than one medication to treat more than one mental illness, things could go very wrong very fast. Many medications can’t be taken together, as they have side effects that worsen when combined. They may also interact with any other physical or mental disorders that the individual already has. 

If you discover that someone has started taking one or more types of medications without speaking with a medical professional first, reach out for help immediately. You never know exactly how that medication may interact with them.

Other Signs to Watch Out For

While addictions can be easy to spot as a co-occurring disorder, there are more subtle signs that your loved one may be suffering. Some of those signs may include, but are not limited to:

  • Paranoia
  • Extreme Mood Swings or Irritability
  • Difficulty Staying on Task
  • Impulsivity
  • Little Motivation or Hope
  • A Lack of Interest in Doing Things They Once Loved
  • General Apathy
  • Extreme Risk-Taking
  • Self-Harm
  • Suicidal Thoughts or Ideations

All of these signs are symptoms of separate mental health disorders that should not be ignored. Understand your loved one’s existing mental illness and pay close attention to any changes in their mood, behavior, or attitude; extreme shifts in their behavior could indicate a co-occurring illness.

If you have any reason to suspect that you or a loved one may have co-occurring disorders, direct them to a mental health professional as soon as possible. They will be able to discuss potential treatment plans and work towards a solution.

When Are Co-Occurring Disorders Dangerous?

Not all co-occurring disorders are the same. Many illnesses go hand-in-hand quite often and are diagnosed together if one mental illness is discovered. However, there are extreme circumstances where you should get immediate help for you or a loved one with mental health illnesses.

If drugs or alcohol are involved as a form of self-medication, then that individual should receive immediate treatment. Addiction can cause mental health disorders to spiral quickly out of control and risk other disorders developing. 

Severe mental illnesses such as psychosis and schizophrenia should also be brought to a mental health professional as soon as possible. They are concerning, and if the disorder worsens drastically, then that person may become a threat to themselves or others. 

Self-harm or suicide attempts should also be treated immediately. This shows that the individual wants to cause serious harm to themselves and requires treatment as soon as possible to prevent further harm. The same goes if the individual has attempted to harm someone else as well. 

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders may seem difficult to manage, but treatment options are available to you or your loved one. There are various ways to get help for your mental illnesses, so don’t be afraid to reach out and get help.

Group or Personal Therapy

Therapy or counseling is a great way to start expressing your feelings and concerns in a non-judgemental environment. Your therapist or counselor can walk you through your emotions and start working you towards long-term treatment goals and solutions. A therapist can also help detect potential triggers and teach you ways to avoid those triggers in the future.

While individual therapy is one option, group therapy is also beneficial for individuals with co-occurring disorders. Not only will they still be given the benefits of individual counseling, but they can talk with others who share similar experiences to them.

If you are struggling with an addiction, you may want to seek a program to help with your addiction. You can choose to do this as an individual or join a group program; whichever you decide is up to your own comfort.

For those with families who have been affected by co-occurring disorders, family therapy may be the best solution for you. Family therapy can open up communication between you and your loved ones so that you can work towards repairing your mental health as a group.

In-Patient Care

In-patient counseling and treatment may prove necessary for those with mental illnesses that cause them to want to harm themselves or others. In a mental health facility, the individual can properly be cared for and treated without the worry of them harming someone. This is especially important if the individual already self-harms or has made a suicide attempt or attempted to harm someone else in the past.


Finally, you may require medication for your mental illnesses to move towards a healthier future. This is nothing to be ashamed of; speak with a medical doctor so that you can get the right medications. They will know how to treat your illnesses and how to select medications that won’t interact negatively with each other.

Understanding Mental Health Illnesses

Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to diagnose and treat, but with the right care and attention, anyone can get started on the path to a healthier future. If you are ever concerned for the sake of yourself or a loved one, reach out and talk to a mental health professional right away.

Join a Career in Addiction Studies or Mental Health

Are you considering a career as a mental health professional but aren’t sure where to go?  Do you know someone who has a helpful heart that may be interested in joining the field of addiction studies or an entry-level career in mental health? We may be a great option.  Contact us with any questions or concerns you may have about joining the mental health and/or addiction studies field, and continue reading our blog for more helpful information!

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