When Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders Co-occur

What does it mean when an individual experiences these two disorders at the same time? An expert from Oakland Community Health Network shares insight.

In any given year, 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental health disorder, and people with mental health disorders are more likely to experience substance use disorders than non-affected individuals, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“The good news is that treatment works. Many who receive treatment, including medications and psychotherapy, recover,” says Vasilis Pozios, M.D., D.F.A.P.A., medical officer with the Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN), which leads a provider service network that assists about 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. People who receive public mental health services through OCHN’s provider network include those who have an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge, or substance use disorder. The majority have Medicaid insurance coverage.

Co-occurring disorders

Conditions in which mental health and substance use disorders co-exist are called co-occurring disorders, and almost 10 million Americans have had a co-occurring disorder in the past year, according to SAMHSA. Co-occurring disorders are especially common in those who participate in Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT) as part of their substance use disorder treatment plan, according to Dr. Pozios. MAT is also used to treat mental health disorders, the most common of which “include anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” he says.

Kids, too, can be affected by mental health and substance use disorders. Trust your instincts and investigate further if you suspect your child needs help. “Parents know their children best,” Dr. Pozios says. “It’s important to look for changes in your child’s behavior, such as irritability, social withdrawal, or loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy.” These may be red flags for mental health and substance use disorders, he says.

“Sometimes symptoms of intoxication or withdrawal can mimic symptoms of other mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety,” Dr. Pozios explains. “Some people self-medicate by using substances in an attempt to make negative emotional states more tolerable. Although substance use may result in a pleasurable response, misuse can cause serious health problems.”

Substance use disorders are brain disorders and are not caused by a lack of faith or by character flaws. “Substances interfere with the way neurons in the brain send, receive and process signals by way of neurotransmitters, and substance use disorders can result in physiological and psychological addiction,” Dr. Pozios explains.

Treatment can help

Treatment for co-occuring disorders can be highly effective but is not one-size-fits-all. Some find MAT to be helpful, while others have success with a 12-step program. “Many benefit from both,” Dr. Pozios says. “Treatment of underlying symptoms of mental health disorders can improve the chances of successful substance use disorder treatment. Many people find optimal treatment with a combination of both medication and psychotherapy, which can be done individually or in group settings.”

OCHN is committed to helping parents and children connect to services to aid in recovery from co-occurring disorders. If you think you, your child or another loved one may benefit from services, please contact OCHN’s Access line at (248) 464-6363, or OCHN’s Crisis Helpline at (800) 231-1127 for urgent matters.

OCHN’s goal is to ensure individuals are aware of and have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life, as well as ensure engagement in full community participation.

The Sober Support Unit in Pontiac, 1200 N. Telegraph Road, Bldg. 32E, 248-456-8144,
is always open.

Oakland Community Health Network leads a provider service network that assists approximately 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. OCHN also manages a $300 million budget funded in part by the Michigan Department of Health Human Services, General Fund, grants, and Oakland County.

Visit OCHN at oaklandchn.org or MDHHS at michigan.gov/staywell.

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