The phrase “co-occurring condition” refers to experiencing more than one mental health condition at a time. It is commonly used to refer to the co-existence of substance use disorder (SUD) with a mental health disorder. This phenomenon can be a “chicken and egg” situation in which it’s not always clear which condition came first: did a prior mental health disorder lead to drug use, or did the effects of drug use create a mental health disorder?
At any rate, an estimated 80% of women who are experiencing SUD also have a diagnosed mental health disorder. This greatly affects the treatment approach of medical and mental health professionals.
Why Substance Abuse Is Considered a Mental Health Disorder
Addiction is not just a physical condition. It affects the brain as well, because drugs impact the way neurotransmitters, or “messenger cells,” communicate with the rest of the body. Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that addiction and mental health disorders have such a close link. Drug-induced changes in the brain impact the same areas that are affected by conditions like schizophrenia or depression. Therefore, people who have mental health disorders are believed to be more likely (though not guaranteed) to develop SUD.
How Men and Women React Differently to Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Disorders
There are a variety of factors that explain why men and women react differently to substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. The symptoms for each can look different between the sexes. The coping mechanisms men and women often use tend to differ as well. The physical makeup between men and women is also different, including differences in body fat, muscle mass, metabolism, and hormones–all of which affect the way substances are absorbed in the body.
Research has shown that men often develop addictions to cope with day-to-day struggles, while women are more likely to use drugs to cope with emotional problems. These are generalizations rather than universal truths, but these are the common reasons that women struggling with drug addiction are more likely to have mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or psychosis.
The Most Common Co-Occurring Conditions Found in Women
The following mental health issues are some of the most common co-occurring conditions found in women.
This condition affects nearly twice as many women as men, especially after pregnancy (a condition called postpartum depression). While it’s normal to experience the blues every now and then, clinical depression is characterized by pervasive feelings of sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, withdrawing from friends and family, or thoughts of suicide or self-harm. If any of these symptoms persist longer than two weeks, you may want to talk to your doctor about an official diagnosis.
Anxiety can look like frequent panic attacks, irrational fears, or obsessive thoughts. People with anxiety may find it difficult to function in social situations or have their sleep disrupted by constant racing thoughts. Anxiety tends to go hand-in-hand with clinical depression. It affects about 60% more women than men.
With social media having such a prominent place in our lives, it’s easier than ever to compare ourselves to others in unhealthy ways. It’s also easier than ever to alter pictures with filters or other forms of photo manipulation to present bodies with unrealistic perfection. This can have the effect of causing many people, but especially young women, to feel insecure about the way they look. This can cause the development of eating disorders.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, a condition in which a person withholds food to the point of starvation, and bulimia, in which one binges on foods and “purges” them later with laxatives or induced vomiting. Other people can “binge” on excessive exercise, working themselves to exhaustion.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
This condition is not just for war veterans. Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event, be it an accident or an assault, can develop PTSD. The symptoms of this condition can manifest as “flashbacks,” or memories, of the traumatic event that disrupt daily life. Some people with PTSD have difficulty returning to their normal routines after the event, and many find themselves withdrawing socially. It’s not uncommon for depression and anxiety to go along with a PTSD diagnosis. It’s also common for people with PTSD to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with trauma.
How Co-Occurring Disorders Should Be Treated
It’s important for medical professionals to know if a patient’s SUD is accompanied by a mental health condition, as this will greatly affect the treatment approach. Treating the mental health disorder first can be ineffective, because the effect of drugs will make it more difficult for a patient to commit to sobriety. This approach can actually worsen substance abuse by exacerbating mental health symptoms.
But treating the substance abuse first doesn’t help either. In this approach, the chemical dependence on drugs cannot be addressed without acknowledging the mental health conditions that inform it. This can increase the chance of relapse when mental health symptoms reappear, enabling the patient to once again turn to drugs as a way to cope.
The most recommended treatment approach for co-occurring disorders in women is a dual-diagnosis treatment: one that looks at the comprehensive health of the patient and treats both disorders together. This approach more effectively addresses a patient’s needs by incorporating therapeutic coping mechanisms in addition to medical treatments. This helps patients understand the reasons behind their addiction and achieve sobriety by implementing healthier coping skills while keeping their mental health symptoms at bay.
While men and women can both experience SUD and co-occurring disorders, these conditions affect women in a particularly unique way. This is due to a combination of factors, including physical make-up and unique experiences. At Spero Recovery, we recognize these variances in how addiction affects both sexes, which is why we offer gender-specific residential programs. These programs help create a supportive community of people who work together toward the common goal of living sober. We accomplish this with group activities, including hiking, woodworking shops, therapies, and other outdoor activities in the beautiful state of Colorado. Our approaches are both peer-led and empirically verified, and we have many client testimonials proving their effectiveness. If you or a loved one need help with addiction, please call us today at (303) 351-7888. You can also reach out to us through the contact form on our website.