What You Need to Know About Comorbidity and How It Can Affect Diagnosis
Updated: May 5
Mental health challenges can come in many forms. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, it can be tempting to self-medicate with legal or illegal drugs to manage the illness. Other illnesses, such as personality disorders, can contribute to feelings of isolation and make it even harder for the sufferer to find help.
What Is Comorbidity?
Mental illness is complicated. Comorbidity refers to multiple conditions occurring at the same time, making treatment more challenging. For example, many who suffer from schizophrenia find relief in the use of tobacco or alcohol products. Because both tobacco and alcohol are highly addictive, illnesses arising around the use of these products must be managed and treated while addressing the treatment of schizophrenia. Self-medication is common among those who suffer from mental health challenges. The addictive cycle will alter brain chemistry. For those who struggle with mood disorders and mental illness, the tendency to self-medicate imposes a sense of control over the condition.
How to Recognize Possible Comorbidity
Comorbidity can be extremely hard to diagnose. For example, conditions such as depression and anxiety can walk hand in hand. If someone is feeling overwhelmed because their anxiety is out of control, they may suffer a sense of hopelessness all too common among the depressed. Those who suffer from a dependent personality disorder may struggle to make decisions and engage in what looks like irrational choices. These choices can lead to self-destructive behaviors similar to the actions of someone with borderline personality disorder. Detailed work with a qualified therapist, medications and follow-up are key to finding the underlying condition and treating it successfully.
Common Comorbidity Concerns
Treatment of comorbid mental health challenges takes time. Making an early diagnosis can lead to ineffective or even inappropriate treatment. For those with bipolar disorder or depression, drug and alcohol dependency is a common risk. Shared symptoms, such as behaving rashly or impulsively, can be tied to the underlying disorder, connected with the substance abuse, or made worse by either of these conditions. When treating mental illness, it's important to note that many sufferers find relief in the use of alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs. Such relief can lead to an addictive need for the product.
How Different Is Therapy for Comorbid Disorders?
Preserving the health and dignity of the patient is the key to effective treatment. If a depressed person is considering suicide, obviously this risk must be addressed first. For those who struggle with multiple conditions, therapists have the best results in treating these illnesses where they separate. For example, someone with both anxiety and depression may find that anxiety prevents them from sleeping well. Depression can be improved with regular physical exercise. Helping an anxious person get proper rest can be a first step in helping a depressed person up to their energy and thus their exercise options.
Substance Abuse Disorders Make It Trickier
Someone with a mental health challenge may turn to self-medicating products such as drugs or alcohol. Mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or major depression are sometimes associated with substance abuse disorders after the fact. Too often, mental health conditions are treated by the sufferer with illegal drugs. They may not get access to treatment when necessary and may be incarcerated. If they can avoid jail, they may suffer homelessness or an abusive home situation because they can't function effectively enough to provide for themselves. Many who suffer from mental health challenges struggle with feelings of weakness or shame.
Comorbidity and Stigma
A poor understanding of mood disorders and mental health challenges continues to contribute to the stigma around mental illness. Such stigma can increase the isolation of the sufferer and even encourage the use of self-medicating products, including alcohol and illegal drugs. Both mental illness and drug addiction alter brain chemistry and neural pathways. Breaking an addictive cycle or behavior requires the patient to lay down new pathways. These pathways can be built with new habits, cognitive therapies, or medications. However, the building of a new brain pathway takes time. Such changes must be guided with professional assistance and constructed with an eye to the long-term future of the patient. It is not enough to treat the mental health condition or overcome physical addiction. The proper treatment takes time and long-term support.
Comorbidity challenges are common among those who struggle with mental illness. Unraveling the tangled mess of mental health conditions, mood disorders and addiction is necessary to building a healthy path forward. A supportive community can aid in building this path, as can securing the physical well-being of the patient. Addressing the stigma around mental health will go a long way to providing security and safety for those who suffer from mood disorders, addiction, and mental health challenges.