What is a Co-Occurring Disorder and What Causes It?

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What is a co-occurring disorder? While you may have heard this term, what does it really mean?  

A co-occurring disorder simply means that two illnesses are at work at the same time. With this disorder, one illness is a substance abuse disorder and the other is a mental health disorder.  While one usually surfaces first, eventually they exist simultaneously, often agitating each other and eventually meshing into a co-occurring disorder.  This disorder is also known as a dual diagnosis.  

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In many cases, people want to know where their co-occurring disorder began, and with which, substance abuse or mental health. This can be as difficult as trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg! In the end, which came first really doesn’t matter, as treatment and recovery are the same regardless. Co-occurring disorders feed off of one another and therefore are very intertwined. This can make it sometimes impossible to know which came first.  

There are a handful of very common co-occurring disorders. These include alcohol addiction and depression, Schizophrenia and substance use disorder, Anxiety disorder and drug addiction, intellectual disability or learning disability, and mental illness.

An image of a man with his head against a wall, as symbolizing the difficulties someone goes through when dealing with a co-occurring disorder

Co-occurring Disorders and Substance Abuse

As mentioned above, co-occurring disorders are fairly common. As it relates to substance abuse and mental health, co-occurring disorders are particularly linked. As people struggle to regulate undiagnosed mental illness, they often will engage in addictive behaviors.  One of the most common ways to alleviate mental health symptoms can easily lead to substance abuse.  Often, a mentally unwell person without proper care can feel they have no other options than to drink or take drugs to put their symptoms to rest.  Even with medication, a depressed person may go to alcohol, as an anxious person may become dependent upon Xanax. Ultimately, these behaviors can be very detrimental to one’s mental health condition and can grow into full-blown addiction at a much more serious level.

The link between a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) and a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is strong.  In fact, one out of four people who have an SMI also has a SUD. This proves how many people are self-medicating to alleviate their mental unrest.  

Addiction is often a slippery slope. Many people may start by only partaking in a small amount of a given substance and quickly spiral into needing to use more as addiction develops. As we know, building tolerance is something that can be easily done with many prescribed medications, alcohol, and illicit drugs. 

While genetics do play a role in addiction and mental health disorders, they are not the be-all, end-all. There are specific genes that may put an individual into a higher risk zone for developing an addiction, but it doesn’t by any means mean they are destined to develop an addiction.  Childhood traumas, lifestyle choices, and many other factors contribute to the development of addiction, and the perpetuation of a given mental health disorder.  

Addiction and mental health are both complicated.  Both have many factors at work from the past to the present.  Therefore, co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders are very closely linked, and can be complicated to unwind.  

Common Co-occurring Disorders

Some of the most recognized co-occurring disorders are:

  • Alcohol addiction
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance use disorder
  • Anxiety disorder 
  • Drug addiction 
  • Intellectual disability or learning disability 
  • Mental illness

Alcohol and depression have been found to be closely linked. While plenty of people consume alcohol in a fun, social way, many also find themselves attempting to drink away their problems. Since alcohol is legal and so accessible, it is one of the easiest substances to abuse. Alcohol itself is a depressant, so it is not a shock that depression and alcoholism are closely linked.  

Other examples of co-occurring disorders would be anxiety disorder and drug addiction.  Anxiety is a widespread issue among many in this day and age. While we all may have moments of anxiety, there are many who suffer from chronic anxiety, known as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

GAD can occur at any age, in both males and females.  With a condition like GAD, is it quite easy to become addicted to the sedative effect that anti-anxiety medications produce? Unfortunately, once tolerance is built with anti-anxiety medications, it is possible a person will turn to drugs as the ultimate way to relieve their symptoms.  

Treatment of co-occurring disorders can be as complex as the disorder itself. Ideally, a treatment team provides both mental health and substance abuse interventions in an integrated method. For example, a person suffering from Schizophrenia and opioid addiction would be treated by a Psychiatrist and an addiction specialist.  Furthermore, trauma can play a large role in mental health and addiction therefore, the more access one has to different therapy modalities, the higher the chances for that individual’s recovery.  

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Get Treated for Co-occurring Disorders at California Detox

At California Detox, we understand that the diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring disorders is complex. We understand that everyone has individual needs when it comes to recovery, and that there is no one size fits all, in any condition, especially a co-occurring disorder. You or your loved one will work closely with our team to design the right treatment plan.  

In most cases of co-occurring disorders, beginning with inpatient treatment is the most effective.  Our recovery staff and community has you covered.  From therapists to targeted trauma therapy, groups, and a strong community, at California Detox we can help you live a new life.  

We know how hard it can be to struggle with addiction of any kind, especially a dual diagnosis.  Know you are not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence anymore! 

Reach out to us today at (949) 694-8305 to let us help you break free of the chains of addiction!


Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder, and OCD are examples of disorders that co-occur with addiction.
Treatment for both the addiction and the mental illness together is the most effective method in recovery for co-occurring disorders. Therapists use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help walk patients through the journey to healing from these disorders.


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