Exploring Co-occurring Disorders For Mental Health Awareness Month


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Founded in 1949 by Mental Health America (MHA), the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to improving the mental wellness of all, its purpose is to raise awareness, educate the public, and dispel the harmful myths surrounding mental illness. In that spirit, it’s a good time to reach out to someone you know who might be struggling to offer them support, encouragement, or just a kind word.

It’s also a good time to check in with yourself and examine your own mental health. In the U.S., more than 21 percent of adults currently live with a mental illness, with the highest prevalence among women, young adults and mixed-race individuals. However, mental illness can affect anyone, and men with substance abuse problems are especially at risk.

It’s long been known that addiction and mental health are connected. What’s not clear is which comes first. We do know that substance abuse alters the brain’s chemistry and has an impact on things like mood, thinking and behavior. For some people, this can trigger or worsen the symptoms of mental illness. We also know that those with mental health conditions are more likely to cope by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Because of this, mental illness increases the risk of substance abuse, while addiction, in turn, worsens mental health, creating a harmful feedback loop.

Since mental illness and addiction often present together, we’ve decided to further explore co-occurring disorders during Mental Health Month. Without further ado, let’s dig in.

The Staggering Statistics

According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 9 million U.S. adults have a co-occurring disorder. Furthermore, more than half of those with a substance abuse problem also experience mental health issues, and vice versa. These numbers are astounding when you consider that most don’t get the help they need to live a happy, healthy life.

Unfortunately, co-occurring disorders can cause other difficulties when left untreated, as symptoms tend to increase in severity and duration. This makes it harder to function normally and leaves many individuals vulnerable to poverty, homelessness and incarceration. In fact, studies have found that nearly 30 percent of homeless people struggle with mental illness, and even more have a co-occurring substance abuse problem. Experts believe that addressing their treatment needs is just as important as increasing access to affordable housing to provide effective assistance. Co-occurring disorders are also prevalent among prison populations, affecting 40 percent of state and federal inmates.

Additionally, the risk factors of suicide often overlap with addiction and mental illness. This includes social isolation, depression, trauma, stigma, financial problems and domestic violence. Managing these and other concerns is key to helping people navigate their emotions, get sober and achieve a greater sense of mental wellness.

Most Common Co-Occurring Disorders

To raise further awareness about the scope of co-occurring disorders, we’ve taken the time to describe some of the mental health problems that often present alongside addiction. Keep reading to learn more.


Depression is one of the most recognized and frequently diagnosed mental conditions in the world. It affects an estimated 21 million adults in the U.S. alone, which is equivalent to 8.4 percent of the population. Depression symptoms include a low mood, fatigue, hopelessness, aches and pains, irritability, trouble concentrating, sleep disturbances and suicidal thoughts. To cope, many people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Frequently-abused substances include liquor, opioids and stimulants.


Another prevalent mental health condition is anxiety, which affects more than 40 million U.S. adults. Symptoms include persistent fear and worry, restlessness, social isolation, feelings of impending doom and trouble concentrating. Some people also experience panic attacks, which are sudden, intense episodes of fear or dread. Although highly treatable, less than half of those with an anxiety disorder get the help they need. This leads many to abuse alcohol, opioids or prescription drugs to manage their symptoms and feel more at ease.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by ongoing mood swings that alternate between intense highs and extreme lows. Bipolar disorder is highly disruptive to daily life and often requires a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes to properly manage and control symptoms. Compared to other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder has the highest rate of co-occurring substance abuse, affecting nearly 60 percent of patients. The most commonly used drugs are alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and opioids.


Schizophrenia is less common than other mental illnesses, but an estimated 50 percent of people with the disorder also have a history of substance abuse. Symptoms of schizophrenia include disordered thinking, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations and emotional instability, all of which are highly distressing and disruptive to normal functioning. Although many self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, illicit substances can exacerbate symptoms and make it more difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. Contrary to popular belief, most patients living with schizophrenia are not violent, despite how the media portrays them.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a persistent and severe mental health condition that develops after witnessing or experiencing a highly traumatic event. This might include natural disasters, sexual assault, domestic violence, warfare, serious accidents and more. Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts, avoidance, flashbacks, increased reactivity and intense anxiety. Drugs and alcohol are often used to lessen the severity of these symptoms.

Integrated Treatment is Key

At Choice House, we’ve long recognized the importance of integrated care when it comes to co-occurring disorders. When individuals get sober without addressing their mental health needs, their symptoms will often trigger a relapse upon returning home. This leaves them trapped in a harmful cycle of addiction, rehab and relapse that is hard to break. In our experience, confronting both issues simultaneously is the only way to achieve lasting recovery.

That’s why our clinicians treat the whole person and address each client’s mental, physical and emotional needs throughout the recovery process. We use a number of therapeutic modalities to look at the underlying issues and help individuals better manage their symptoms without drugs or alcohol. Each client meets with our medical director upon admission to have their needs assessed and undergo a psychiatric evaluation, allowing us to craft personalized treatment plants that are engineered for their success.

Key Takeaways From Mental Health Awareness Month

Choice House MHM

If you or someone you know is struggling with a co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, is committed to helping clients get sober and achieve a greater sense of stability by providing integrated treatments that leave no stone unturned. Call us today at 303-578-4978 to learn more.

Get Involved

Mental Health Awareness Month is a time for reflection, connection and greater advocacy for those living with a mental health condition. If you’d like to get involved and spread the message, click here to discover more resources, events and activities.

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