Helpful Insight into Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment

To understand co-occurring disorder treatment, a parent first needs to know what a co-occurring disorder is. Also known as dual diagnosis, a co-occurring disorder is a condition of suffering from both a mental health condition and a comorbid substance abuse problem. Although it sounds technical, comorbidity is simply a term for the simultaneous presence of two conditions in a patient. Thus, if a teen suffers from both depression and drug abuse, they have a co-occurring disorder.

A modern renowned addiction expert, Dr. Gabor Maté, is famous for his treatment mantra, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” He believes that traumatic experience, particularly during childhood, is at the root of substance use disorder. Through integrated treatment that addresses substance use disorder, mental health conditions, and underlying issues of trauma, long-term recovery is possible.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Psychological Distress

The idea of receiving a dual diagnosis may bring psychological distress to some patients who were expecting only one diagnosis. However, the discovery of a dual diagnosis can more quickly highlight the underlying issues behind a substance abuse problem and thus lead to more effective treatment for patients.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.2 million people experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder in 2018. Thus, co-occurring disorders are not uncommon and there is no reason to attach a stigma to a person with a co-occurring disorder. Unfortunately, such negative stigmas can often lead to more significant psychological distress.

Why Are Co-Occurring Disorders So Common?

According to, a teenager who experiences a major depressive episode is twice as likely to begin using alcohol or an illicit drug as compared to their peers who have not had a depressive episode. In other words, teens with mental health issues often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Additionally, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Scientists know that some of these conditions run in families, so genetics might play a role in both substance use and other mental illnesses.” This supports the idea that if one member of a family is suffering from a co-occurring disorder, that another family member may be more susceptible to a co-occurring disorder as well.

Principles of Effective Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment

Effective co-occurring disorder treatment begins with the family coming together to support the patient from the outset of the diagnosis. Love, positivity, and being proactive is essential to begin the transition to co-occurring disorders treatment. For a teenager, knowing that their family believes in their recovery can mean everything to them and help with their recovery.

After the patient and family accepts the dual diagnosis, the next critical stage in the recovery process is for the patient to be integrated into a co-occurring disorders treatment program.

Dr. Kenneth Minkoff, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a pioneer in the field of Dual Diagnosis treatment. In 2001, he published an article in Psychiatric Services outlining best practices and standards of care for co-occurring disorders. Four key points from this article include the following.

  1. Each client should be assessed at the beginning of treatment for both substance use disorder and mental health conditions.
  2. Both the substance use disorder and the mental health condition should be given the same level of attention and care during the rehabilitation process.
  3. The treatment team should be trained in addressing co-occurring disorders.
  4. Mental health conditions need to be treated with dignity and respect.

By recognizing the mental health condition as a potential underlying issue affecting the substance use disorder, integrated co-occurring disorders treatment can be utilized.

Mental health symptoms like social anxiety, depression, or compulsive behavior do not have to be barriers to long-term recovery. Instead, when treatment of these mental health issues is integrated into substance use disorder recovery, a favorable outcome is more likely. For a parent, positivity and being proactive is essential.

A dual diagnosis of co-occurring disorders for a teenager is not the end of the line. Instead, more often than not, it is the very beginning of recovery. By identifying the challenge at hand, professionals open the door to effective treatment for a teen in pain. After all, the ultimate goal is to restore health for the patient.


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