Co-Occurring Disorders in Young People

“Co-occurring disorders” often refers to the presence of both a mental health and substance use disorder. Co-occurring disorders are common. Data from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that 41.2% of the adults diagnosed with a substance use disorder in the past year also had a mental health diagnosis in the past year. Conversely, 23.8% of those diagnosed with a serious mental illness in the past year also had a substance use disorder in the past year. Other sources indicate that the data for adolescents are starker. Studies show that the majority of youth with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder.

The relationship between substance use and mental health disorders is complex. It stands to reason that many people who are experiencing a mental health disorder, such as depression or severe anxiety, may use alcohol and/or drugs to numb their feelings. Yet there are other factors to consider:

  • Heredity―Recent research suggests that a person’s genetic makeup may predispose them to both substance abuse and a mental health disorder.
  • Brain development―Using drugs or alcohol in the teenage years, when the brain is still developing, may increase the chances of a co-occurring disorder later in life.
  • Stress or trauma―Living through a traumatic event may make a person prone to both addiction and mental illness.
  • Neurological factors―Research has shown that in some cases, addiction and mental illness may share neurological origins. For instance, low levels of the neurotransmitters that affect emotional stability may lead to both mood disorders and substance abuse.
Whatever the cause, there is wide consensus that co-occurring disorders should be treated in an integrated fashion, and not sequentially. Integrated treatment includes: a treatment team with both mental health and substance use disorder expertise; a treatment plan that uses evidence-based practices and addresses all of the needs of an individual; and integrated medication management. With the appropriate treatment, recovery is achievable.

To learn about resources and supports in your community, contact an MCF staff member.