What Is the Difference: Comorbidity & Dual Diagnosis vs. Co-Occurring Disorders

There is a strong link between mental illness and substance abuse. Quite often, an underlying mental health condition can lead people to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to relieve their symptoms. These substances can cause serious mental health conditions with long-term use.

Because of this connection, it's not uncommon to struggle with a mental illness and substance use disorder at the same time. There are three terms often used to describe this occurrence: comorbidity, dual diagnosis and co-occurring disorders.

These terms are often used interchangeably when referring to someone who has both an addiction to drugs or alcohol and other mental health conditions. However, there are slight differences between comorbidity, co-occurring disorders and dual diagnosis. It's important to know how they vary, especially if you are seeking treatment for addiction and mental illness.

The Disease of Drug & Alcohol Addiction

First, it's important to recognize that drug addiction is a mental illness. Drug and alcohol use can change your brain's structure and function. Changes occur to some of the same areas of the brain impacted by other mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia.

The disease of addiction is characterized by compulsive and often uncontrollable cravings. Despite the devastating consequences of drug or alcohol use, an addicted individual may continue to seek out these substances unless they receive professional treatment.

What Does Comorbidity Mean?

Comorbidity is one of the terms that describes someone who has both a mental illness and addiction. The term comorbidity also has a broader meaning. It can be used to describe any circumstance where two disorders or diseases occur in the same person. While this term could be applied to drug addiction and mental illness, it could also describe someone who has Parkinson's disease and anxiety, for example.

Someone with comorbidity doesn't have to have both disorders at the same time. Sometimes, one illness will begin when the other seems to be resolved. Comorbidity implies that there is some kind of connection between the two disorders affecting both how they progress and their treatment.

Dual Diagnosis vs. Co-Occurring Disorders

Dual diagnosis is a more general term for two or more conditions that occur in the same person at the same time, whether physical or mental. The presence of heart disease and diabetes could be considered a dual diagnosis. Today, dual diagnosis treatment is the term most often used to describe how those who have both a mental illness and addiction are treated.

Co-occurring disorders describe a variety of diseases that commonly occur along with drug abuse or alcohol addiction. This term is used almost exclusively to refer to someone who has a mental illness that contributes to or comes as a result of an addiction. However, an addicted individual's co-occurring disorder could also be HIV, cancer, hepatitis C or another disease.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Available at Diamond House Detox

Whether you call it comorbidity, dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder, correct diagnosis and treatment are essential to give you the greatest chance of recovery. It can be difficult to untangle many of the overlapping symptoms of drug or alcohol abuse and certain mental health disorders to ensure appropriate care. That's why you need addiction specialists who understand the nuances of dual diagnosis treatment.

At Diamond House Detox, we specialize in evidence-based dual diagnosis treatment to ensure you get the highest quality of care. If you believe that your mental health condition has contributed to a substance abuse disorder or vice versa, we're here to help. Contact us today to find out more about treatment for dual diagnosis.

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on January 8th, 2020.