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What Is the Difference Between Co-occurring and Dual Diagnosis?

Person comparing two different types of applesAn addiction can touch almost every part of a person’s life. Relationships, finances, careers, and more can all fall by the wayside when an addiction is in full swing. Sometimes, the addiction can grow so powerful that it sparks other physical and mental health conditions.

For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that people addicted to drugs are about twice as likely to deal with mood and anxiety disorders, when compared to the general population. These are two very different diagnoses, but they can apply to the same person.

Naming is important to medical professionals that deal with these issues, as the terms they use can help to both define the disorder and describe how it might be dealt with in the future. There are two terms that can be used when two or more conditions appear in the same person at the same time: dual diagnosis and co-occurring disorders.

Dual Diagnosis

This term could be applied to an issue of two or more conditions in the same person at the same time, but it is also a broader term that could apply to any combination of physical conditions that apply to one person. For example, someone with diabetes and heart disease might have a dual diagnosis. Someone with cancer and migraines might also have a dual diagnosis. Anytime medical professionals can diagnose two separate but equal conditions, they might use this term.

For people with addictions, physical problems that might merit a dual diagnosis include:

  • Hepatitis B infections
  • AIDS infections
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Lung scarring
  • Chronic constipation
  • Tissue death
  • Mental illness

Arguably, these are all things that could be caused by drug abuse, but they are separate physical diagnoses. They could fall under the heading of a dual diagnosis.

Co-Occurring Disorders

This term is used almost exclusively in reference to a mental health issue that comes as a result of, or contributes to, an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Symptoms of that problem, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, include:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Using or abusing substances under dangerous conditions
  • Loss of the ability to control or curb drug use
  • Tolerance to the impact of drugs
  • Withdrawal symptoms when no substances are taken
  • A need to use in order to handle everyday life
  • Risky behaviors caused by substance abuse

For some people, mental illness sparks the need to use and abuse drugs. For these people, the substances work as a form of symptom control. With substances, they feel capable of handling the difficulties the mental health issue can bring. For others, mental health issues come about due to drug abuse and the brain damage it can cause.

Patient speaking with therapist about co-occurring disorders or dual-diagnosis


When It’s More Than Substance Abuse

We Address & Treat Underlying Co-Occurring Issues
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Treatment Options

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests that integrated treatment, in which all the person’s difficulties are handled by the same team at the same time, is ideal for dual diagnosis and co-occurring condition problems. These other issues can make recovery from addiction harder, so it makes sense to deal with them as part of the recovery process. Until they are addressed, they will function as endless relapse prompts.

Not all treatment programs are capable of handling multiple issues at the same time, so families will need to choose providers with care. By selecting a treatment team that can deal with these multiple issues, people can get the relief they need.

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