Co-occurring disorders vs. Mental illness symptoms

Is it a coincidence that every person I’ve met suffering from a substance abuse disorder has had mental issues that were left untreated or unnoticed to start with? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines the coexistence of both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder as co-occurring disorders.

The question, though, is why would someone in their right mind become addicted to a substance and have this thing rule their life? Could it be that substance abuse is actually a symptom of mental disorders rather than a completely different disorder?

Beyond the limitations of statistics, it seems fair to bet that someone happy, confident and full of life doesn’t need the extra boost that addictive substances provide. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona,we know which drugs are overly addictive and to stay away because of the program started in 1998: D.A.R.E. This federally produced program required schools nationwide to go over drugs and alcohol with at-risk adolescents.

Even with programs like D.A.R.E., however, statistics in Arizona show that 18 percent of people had first tried alcohol before they were 13 years old.As far as hard drugs go, about 5 percent admitted to using cocaine in high school, about 2 percent admitted to using meth and about 15 percent admitted to using prescription pain medication in a nonmedical way.

It’s interesting to note, however, that 34 percent of high schoolers reported to experiencing symptoms of depression, yet about 83 percent received little to no treatment in regards to their mental health. Seems like some parents will be researching mental health and rehab clinics while most are preparing for college send-offs. Is this our normal, and if so, why?

How this Happened

With all the facts presented about drugs, alcohol and the ages they are used, most of us paint the picture of emotionally immature teens or mentally ill adults naively self-medicating into a cycle that then leads to addiction. So then, why is our society so harsh on those with addiction but not mental health issues?

Experiencing an outlook where substance abuse is seen as a symptom creates a space where the negative stigma of addicts doesn’t exist; this stigma could be the one thing that’s holding them back from getting the help they need. Imagine what it’s like to have anxiety but no one to help you with it; without any help, self-medicating seems like an easy choice. It’s cheaper, faster and less humiliating until it isn’t.

Creating a Cycle of Debt


Think about having a mental illness and knowing that the only permanent relief can come from expensive therapy. imagine your self-medicating with drugs has spun out of control and your eyes are set on sobriety but that monetary price is blocking the door and now the price has doubled; you’re trapped. This is the case for many but even worse for those diagnosed with co-occurring disorders.

The cost of co-occurring disorders treatment in Arizona can range from either being free (which are few and far between) to thousands of dollars. As great as Arizona co-occurring disorder treatment centers are, most Americans just don’t have that kind of money lying around, especially when they need treatment the most. So, what happens when there isn’t enough affordable treatment to go around?

A cycle of debt is created, where people need to pay the price for medication for their mental disorder and treatment for their addiction yet being financially strapped. They’re constantly borrowing money or paying late fees, forcing them to decide between treatment and food..

When our society starts putting the minds of our people over money, maybe they will be free but for now, it seems that money is all that matters.

How We Can Help

Release the Stigma

Lead by example and be open to vulnerability around close friends. Show them that it’s ok to talk about your struggles and listen when they do. End the argument on whether addiction is a symptom of mental illness or an entirely separate disease and join the fight to save countless lives no matter their circumstances.

Vote No to these Prices


Take to your local polls;if you’re in Arizona, let Arizona’s Public Policy Committee know that now is the time for affordable healthcarefor college students, part-time employees and especially those with a mental illness. There’s no reason why anyone who feels they need help should have a price tag stand in their way to sobriety.

We need these people as productive members of society to help us create a better future.

Self-ExpressionOver Self-Medication

The best way to prevent to help those suffering from a co-occurring disorder is tohelpotherslearn how to deal with their emotions and mental capacity in a healthy way. Instead of numbing life’s pains with substances, maybe we can move towards self-expression.

Replace the D.A.R.E. programs with better art and music classes, or even a group counseling session for kids. At a time where Maricopa’s school system has cut after-school programs and community college football, this movement can promote self-care and compassion for others.

By doing this we can provide an outletfor those suffering from amentaldisorder like depression and deterself-medication, which can lead one to suffer fromco-occurring disorders.

Any little bit helps, and if you read this to the end, you’re already doing your part.

Ellen Cone