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

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Addiction is a complex disease that affects many facets of a person’s life. In some people, addiction shows up by itself, making it much easier to treat and care for them. In many others, addiction shows up with other problems. For these people dual diagnosis and co-occurring disorder treatment is essential to improving their health. Of course, these terms are similar, but they have a slightly different meaning in reference to addiction.

Dual Diagnosis

A dual diagnosis is given when two diagnoses can be given equal weight. One example may be a person who has diabetes and coronary artery disease. This person has a dual diagnosis because both illnesses are equally threatening if left untreated. The same can be true of addiction, especially in terms of physical problems.

Some people who are addicted to a substance may also have:

  • Hepatitis B
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Cancer
  • Organ/Tissue Death
  • Scarring of Lung and Blood Vessels
  • Mental Illness

Technically, substance abuse disorder can lead to any of these problems, but this does not have to be the case. A person may have contracted hepatitis B before they developed a drug addiction. A person can also have a mental illness that is not related to their substance use disorder; although, this is not as common since mental health problems tend to be co-occurring with substance use disorder

Co-Occurring Disorders

The term co-occurring disorder almost always is used in reference to a mental health disorder that is happening at the same time as another mental health disorder. Sometimes, co-occurring disorders are referred to as comorbid disorders. Beyond the usual signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder, a person may have a co-occurring disorder if they have:

  • extreme withdrawal from friends and family
  • sudden changes in behavior not explained by substance use
  • mood swings or consistently low mood when the substance has not been used for a long time
  • other mental health symptoms not better explained by substance use disorder.

The relationship between addiction and other disorders can be tricky to uncover. In some clients, the drug abuse led to the onset of a different disorder. For example, a person who is addicted to a substance is likely to push away friends and family. Without a support system, a person is more likely to develop a mood disorder such as major depressive disorder.

For some clients, a previously occurring disorder may lead to substance abuse. For example, a person who has experienced a serious trauma and, as a result, developed post-traumatic stress disorder may feel totally out of control. To regain some control, this person may turn to drugs or alcohol, leading to substance use disorder.

Some of the commonly co-occurring disorders include:

  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Bulimia Nervosa

It is important to note that these co-occurring disorders are directly related, in some way, to the substance use disorder.

While the terms imply that a person with substance use disorder has other health problems happening, dual diagnosis and co-occurring have a slight difference in their meaning. In most cases the difference is arbitrary because dual diagnosis and co-occurring disorder treatment does not change based on which term is used with a client.

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