Treatment and Recovery for Addiction and Co-occurring Disorders

Young female therapist thinking about a Client Who Has a Co-Occurring Eating Disorder

If an individual is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, there are significant chances that that individual is also battling a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, mood/personality disorder or compulsive behavior. This makes treating addiction and mental health disorders all the more difficult.

It is not unlikely for people with mental health disorders to abuse drugs, prescription medications or alcohol to cope with their psychological distress.

Around 9 million individuals experience both addiction and mental health disorders, which is also known as co-occurring disorders or Dual Diagnosis. Despite the substantiated risks, more than 55 percent of individuals battling co-occurring disorders do not get any help at all.

Connection Between Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

Almost a third of all people with a mental health disorder and about half of the people with severe mental illnesses also struggle with a substance abuse disorder. On the other hand, a third of all alcoholics and more than half of all drug abusers reportedly battle a mental illness as well.

Any of the two disorders may precede the other, yet both disorders exacerbate each other’s symptoms, often making it exceedingly difficult to distinguish the symptoms of one disorder from the other.

The relationship between mental illness and substance abuse is a complex one. Someone continuously experiencing unmanageable emotions, chronic depression or severe anxiety may find it exceedingly tempting to somehow escape these feelings.

This often leads to a phenomenon, known as self-medication, where the patient uses tranquilizers, alcohol, painkillers, or any other substance of abuse to get quick relief from mental disturbances.

Self-medication is usually found to be the main connecting element between the two disorders. However, it’s just one reason explaining the relationship between mental health and substance abuse.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has listed several contributing factors that may explain co-occurring disorders such as heredity, impaired brain development due to substance abuse at an early age, stressful or traumatic event and neurological abnormalities.

Treating Addiction and Co-occurring Disorders

SAMHSA claims that an estimated 8.9 million Americans have co-occurring disorders. Yet, each year fewer than 7.5 percent of these individuals join a comprehensive treatment program that could provide evidence-based effective treatment.

Man recovering from addiction and mental health disorders

Finding the right treatment necessary to cope with a co-occurring disorder is not always easy. Many rehabilitation facilities head-on address addictive behaviors, but may fail to provide comprehensive treatment for the underlying psychiatric conditions.

Traditionally, addictive and mental disorders have been treated separately. Recent times, however, have seen an inclination of addiction specialists toward acknowledging the importance of treating substance abuse and mental health disorders under a single, integrated recovery program.

Treatment of co-occurring disorders must be approached as a separate entity, integrating the most effective aspects of substance abuse treatment and the best evidence-based elements of psychiatric care.

It is vital to seek out a program that offers specialized treatment for a dual diagnosis. The facility should have consulting clinicians on staff who are particularly trained in and have the credentials for integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders.

Since there are numerous ways in which a dual diagnosis may unfold, treatment will not be the same for every patient. Treatment needs to be individualized and tailored to accommodate and address the needs of each patient.

Journey to Recovery

A thorough, detailed evaluation of the patient’s substance abuse history and mental health needs to be conducted, and treatment needs to be programmed accordingly. Every person’s journey to recovery is different, and finding the best way to restore physical and emotional health is a highly individualized process.

It is recommended for clients to initially receive intensive medical care, largely involving detoxification. During inpatient detoxification, the patient is monitored by trained medical staff, usually for a week.

Detoxification involves administration of tapering quantities of the substance or a medical alternative to wean the patient off and manage or limit the effects of withdrawal.

This enables effective management of the symptoms caused by the mental health disorder without abusing drugs and alcohol. This is important so that substance abuse does not worsen symptoms of mental illness and neither does an untreated mental disorder build the urge to drink or get high.

Comprehensive care that is initiated through detox and continues into the aftercare treatment is considered the most efficient way to recovery.

Inpatient Rehabilitation

A person with co-occurring disorders may benefit most from inpatient rehabilitation where he/she can receive concentrated medical and mental health care round the clock.

These treatment centers provide the necessary combinations of therapy, support, medication and health services.

Medication has proven to be a useful component of treatment that not only help with symptoms of a mental health disorder but also helps manage withdrawal symptoms of substance abuse.

Psychotherapy and behavioral therapy is a large component of most effective dual diagnosis treatments.

Numerous studies have proven a psychological approach to improve the symptoms of both mental illness and substance abuse.

This includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular, which is effective in educating patients about coping skills and managing negative thought processes.

Counseling sessions and group meetings should involve the family as well to create a solid support system. These sessions should accommodate for complications emerging due to the symptoms of mental illness, such as difficulty focusing, fear of socializing, lack of motivation and denial.

Woman overcoming triggers in addiction and mental health disorders

Support groups allow members to share frustrations, milestones, resources and tips on what works best during recovery. They form lasting friendships and provide encouragement to stay on track.

Holistic therapies like acupuncture, massage, yoga or Reiki have been proven to balance health and wellbeing.

Aftercare programs that continue to provide support post-rehabilitation are essential to maintaining recovery.

Overall, it is largely agreed that a combination of traditional methods and evidence-based practices has the greatest likelihood of producing the best results.

Medical and scientific knowledge and research combined with personal experience and motivational tools are renowned for securing lasting recoveries.

Scientific knowledge and research are continuously evolving the treatment field and it is vital to understand and accept this change to produce the most efficient results.

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

Sana Ahmed is a journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills. She has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 14, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 14, 2017
Published on

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.