Co-Occurring Disorders and Opioid Recovery: What’s the Deal?

Written by Buprenorphine Doctors

This September, Americans are enjoying a unique celebration: Recovery Month. Every year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) takes the whole month to raise awareness about Americans recovering from addiction and mental illness. September 2019 marks the celebration’s thirtieth year, and we at Buprenorphine Doctors are celebrating with a series of articles focused on the movement’s values. 

Last week we discussed how community anchors recovery. Now we’ll introduce co-occurring disorders and what they mean for opioid recovery.


The name Recovery Month was first used in 1998, about nine years after its first 1989 campaign. Back then its founders called it Treatment Works! Month, and it mostly honored the professionals who were improving addiction treatments. Organizers in 1998 expanded the celebration to include those who’d successfully recovered from substance abuse, changing the name to National Alcohol and Drug Addiction (Recovery) Month. 2011 saw the last change to the campaign’s identity: its proponents included those suffering from mental illness, and they shortened the name to National Recovery Month.

All these adjustments to the name show the changing emphasis. What once only celebrated doctors now celebrates those recovering from addiction and mental illness. Those two elements are crucial to the celebration, and they’re also crucial to the people who face them both each day. We call simultaneous addiction and mental illness a co-occurring disorder, and we can’t celebrate Recovery Month without mentioning it.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

If you’re addicted to opioids, you’d be diagnosed with opioid use disorder. And if you also suffer from mental illnesses (mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, and eating disorders), you’d be diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder.

We don’t know everything about co-occurring disorders. Researchers haven’t defined whether the addiction or the mental illness occurs first. But they have found that your addiction can worsen your mental illness, and that your mental illness can worsen your addiction.

For instance, if you struggle with opioid abuse and also suffer from depression, you’re less likely to take your medication because of your opioid addiction. That lack of medication would then intensify your addiction. The murky back-and-forth between mental illness and substance abuse can derail your attempts to get better in either area.

What Causes Co-Occurring Disorders?

Just like the tangled causes of opioid addiction, no one thing directly causes co-occurring disorders. There are some factors which increase your likelihood of suffering from them:

  • Family history of either addiction or mental illness
  • Childhood trauma
  • Environmental features (like too much stress and an unpleasant home life)

These factors are just the underlying ones, and any combination of them increase your chance of having a co-occurring disorder.

How Do We Treat Them?

If you suffer from a co-occurring disorder, your treatment must coordinate your mental therapy with your addiction treatment. You already know that mental illness and opioid addiction complicate one another. A recovery plan that treats these parts separately doesn’t address that complication, and it will likely fail.

That’s just why SAMHSA recommends integrated therapy to cure both the addicted body and the imbalanced mind. Doctors and therapists combine their programs to help you recognize what your mental illness feels like and what might trigger it. You also receive medically-assisted treatment to relieve your physical dependence on opioids. You’ll learn the triggers of your opioid addiction, and you’ll learn the self-destructive behaviors of your mental illness. The treatment is well-rounded because it has to be.

So What Now?

Learning all this only helps you if you do something about it, whether you’re the one facing a co-occurring disorder or someone who you care about.

The most important thing is that you evaluate yourself or your loved one honestly. A co-occurring disorder won’t improve if you never acknowledge it. Here are a few clear symptoms to look for:

  • Social isolation
  • Less control over opioid use
  • Confused thinking
  • Suicidal thinking

Just like the signs of mental illness, co-occurring disorder symptoms depend on the exact disorder. They aren’t always obvious, and there are more to watch out for. Learn a little more here.

Visit a doctor to know for sure if there’s a co-occurring disorder. Opioid addiction will already overwhelm you if it goes untreated. An untreated co-occurring disorder will make sure of that. We can’t stress enough how important a professional diagnosis is, since it’s the first step toward treatment.

And never mind the stigma of either mental illness or opioid addiction. Recovery Month combats harsh views of mental illness and substance addiction because those views are unfounded, and because they impede healthy recovery.

Here at Buprenorphine Doctors, we can help you take that first step toward opioid addiction recovery. Look through our addiction doctors or our opioid treatment clinics. You’ll face no stigma with us, which is especially relevant this Recovery Month. We’ll help you begin opioid recovery treatment and sustain your recovery through all its stages.

Make sure to visit our site next week for the next article in the Recovery Month series!

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