The Dangers of Leaving Co-Occurring Disorders Untreated

May 5, 2024

It is true that individuals who struggle with substance abuse experience an increased risk of mental health disorders and vice versa. When substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health disorders occur in tandem, they are known as co-occurring disorders. The 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), discovered that nearly 21.5 million adults have a co-occurring disorder in the United States. Leaving co-occurring disorders untreated can foster a host of complications. Thus, gaining a better understanding of these complications can help individuals understand their need for professional treatment and recovery. 

At Renaissance Ranch, we offer a wide range of treatment programs for individuals struggling with substance abuse, mental health disorders, and co-occurring disorders. We believe that recovery not only involves treatment participation for the individual struggling but also professional education and support for the entire family throughout the healing process. Meanwhile, through the use of evidence-based modalities in conjunction with 12-Step and trauma-informed approaches at Renaissance Ranch, clients and their families will learn essential skills and tools to sustain sobriety and recovery for a lifetime to come. 

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

As mentioned previously, co-occurring disorders involve the presence of SUD alongside a mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more. These disorders can develop separately through shared risk factors, including early exposure to maltreatment and neglect, untreated trauma, a lack of a quality support system, and chronic stress. Yet, mental health disorders can also develop as a result of substance abuse and vice versa. 

For example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIM) explains that substance abuse can contribute to the development of mental health disorders because the repeated use of alcohol and other drugs can trigger changes in brain structure and functioning. Furthermore, such changes can make an individual more vulnerable to emotional and/or behavioral dysregulation and other characteristics of mental health disorders. 

On the other hand, untreated mental health disorders can also make an individual more likely to engage in substance abuse as a means of self-medication. Perhaps the most common way that co-occurring disorders develop, self-medicating practices occur when an individual turns to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to cope, process, or treat their mental health symptoms. 

While this may seem like an effective way to experience temporary relief from mental health symptoms short-term, substance use and abuse can exacerbate mental health symptoms over time. Furthermore, as NIMH notes, “Additionally, brain changes in people with mental disorders may enhance the rewarding effects of substances, making it more likely they will continue to use the substance.”

What Happens if Co-Occurring Disorders Go Untreated?

Leaving co-occurring disorders untreated can lead to incredibly destructive effects. Over time, these effects can increase in severity and intensity, triggering ripple effects that impact the health and well-being of friends, family, and other loved ones. Some of the specific dangers of leaving co-occurring disorders untreated include:

  • Exacerbation of symptoms: Co-occurring disorders are comorbid, which means that the interactions between the two conditions will often worsen the course and prognosis of both. 
  • Worsened interpersonal relationships: An individual with untreated co-occurring disorders will likely exhibit impaired communication alongside heightened irritability and behave unpredictably, which can trigger more frequent conflicts with loved ones over time. 
  • Difficulties maintaining employment or academic performance: The comorbid effects of co-occurring disorders can interfere with an individual’s motivation, energy, focus, concentration, and more, affecting their ability to perform effectively at work or school. 

Additionally, individuals with co-occurring disorders may also experience:

  • An increased risk of legal issues: As symptoms of co-occurring disorders become more severe, an individual is more likely to get into trouble with the law as a result of obtaining and using illicit substances, operating vehicles under the influence, or otherwise jeopardizing parental rights and housing stability when their conditions are left untreated. 
  • Engagement in risky behaviors: Those with untreated co-occurring disorders are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex and perpetrating violence. 
  • Increased risk of potential drug overdose: Those with untreated co-occurring disorders are also more vulnerable to unintentional drug overdose by both using substances in greater quantities as well as using street drugs contaminated with life-threatening additives like fentanyl. 

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders in Tandem

Individuals seeking recovery from co-occurring disorders must understand that multiple conditions need to be treated in tandem for the best chance at lasting recovery and sobriety. If only one disorder is treated in treatment, there is a higher chance of relapse for both conditions. This is especially true if an individual develops SUD in an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of their mental health disorder. 

Surely, co-occurring disorders can complexify treatment needs and recovery goals. Yet, recovery is possible. Further, NIMH highlights that effective treatment for co-occurring disorders must be individualized, addressing an individual’s unique needs and specific combinations of symptoms. Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), are often used alongside medication as the best treatment regimen for co-occurring disorders. 

Meanwhile, at Renaissance Ranch, we offer several treatment options for both men and women struggling with co-occurring SUD and mental health disorders. Using a faith-based philosophy and approach to recovery, our clients can learn the value of leaning on the support of each other and themselves to kick co-occurring disorders to the curb once and for all. 

Struggling with substance abuse alongside a co-occurring mental health disorder can make daily life feel overwhelming. Unfortunately, co-occurring disorders require professional guidance and support to overcome. Without treatment, individuals are more likely to experience worsened symptoms and interpersonal conflict, increased difficulties maintaining employment, legal issues, engagement in risky behaviors, and increased vulnerability to drug overdose. Fortunately, at Renaissance Ranch, we offer a plethora of treatment programs and options for those looking to achieve and sustain lasting recovery from co-occurring disorders. Before treatment can begin, however, you must be willing to accept your need for help and then reach out to us for it. For more information and support, give us a call today at (801) 308-8898.