Young woman struggling with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorder.

Everything You Should Know About Co-Occurring Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

Young adults struggle with mental illness and substance use disorders more than any other age group. Understanding the connection between co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders is the first and most important step in finding and receiving help. 

In this blog, we’ll review everything you should know about co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders as well as the types of treatments those struggling should seek. 

What are Co-Occurring Disorders?

Co-occurring disorders include any combination of two or more substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental disorders. Young adults with a mental illness are more likely to experience a substance use disorder than those not affected by mental illness. 

In 2020, an estimated 6.7% of young adults (ages 18-25) with substance use disorders had at least one co-occurring mental health disorder. When presented together, psychiatric disorders and substance use disorders intensify one another. This often leads to issues such as:

  • More severe symptoms
  • Lower treatment engagement and response
  • Higher rates of relapse for both conditions
  • Worsened prognoses (including a higher risk of suicide)

Most mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders begin by young adulthood, increasing the risk of developing substance use disorders. The association between the two works both ways. 

This means, as likely as it is for someone with a mental illness to develop a substance use disorder, it’s just as likely for someone abusing substances to acquire mental illness symptoms. 

Substance use at a young age can impact critical development processes and predispose young adults to neuropsychiatric complications including cognitive functions and episodes of psychotic and mood disorders. 

Drug Addiction in Young Adults

Young adults with substance use disorders are at risk of developing one or more primary conditions or chronic diseases. During their transition into adulthood, young adults experience rapid neuroanatomical and neurochemical maturation with corresponding cognitive, social, and emotional changes. 

This means most young adults are in a state of biological vulnerability during these years. Because of this, drug addiction in young adults becomes more of a risk. In addition, they become more likely to reap the detrimental consequences and effects of overused substances.

Below, we’ve listed the seven most common substances abused by young adults.

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco/Nicotine
    • Cigarettes
    • Vapes
    • Chew or dip
  • Opioids
    • Oxycodone
    • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
    • Morphine
    • Methadone
  • Stimulants
    • Cocaine
    • Ecstacy
    • Methamphetamines
  • Marijuana
  • Hallucinogens
    • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
    • Mescaline (peyote)
    • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)
    • Phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP)
  • Prescription drugs
    • Adderall
    • Ritalin
    • Concerta
    • Dexedrine
    • Dextroamphetamine

Young adults can begin taking drugs for a multitude of reasons. Whether it’s experimenting, trying to fit in, or for legitimate medical reasons, young adults need to know and understand the harmful effects that come with misusing drugs. 

The Effects of Drug Abuse on Young Adults

A person’s brain continues to grow and develop into their mid-20s. One of the biggest risks of drug abuse at a young age is the harming of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making before it’s fully developed. This is why the effects of drug abuse on young adults can be more severe and leave them with lasting issues. 

Taking and misusing drugs at a young age can interfere with this development, and negatively affect decision-making. The earlier a person begins to take drugs, the higher the chance of becoming addicted. Substance use disorders in young adults can also lead to the development of adult health problems including but not limited to:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep disorders

Preventing Substance Abuse in Young Adults

There are many ways substance use disorders can be prevented in young adults. One of the most effective ways to do this is by knowing the signs of addiction. The following are the most common signs to look for in substance abuse in young adults.

  • Changing friends or friend groups 
  • Spending more time alone
  • Losing interest in favorite activities, hobbies, etc.
  • Not taking care of themselves and poor hygiene
  • Being tired all of the time
  • Feeling sad
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Being more energetic, talking fast, or saying things that don’t make sense
  • Quick changes between feeling bad and feeling good or mood swings
  • Having problems in school
  • Having problems in personal or family relationships
  • Missing important appointments, occasions, events, etc. 
  • Lying and stealing 
  • Memory lapses
  • Poor concentration, lack of coordination, slurred speech, etc. 

Parents and guardians need to have an open line of communication with a young adult who may be struggling with substance abuse. Learning how to help someone struggling with substance abuse can be a full-time job. However, there are many prevention programs for families, schools, and communities. 

Young woman in substance abuse group therapy.

Mental Health Disorders in Young Adults

Mental illness involves a wide variety of disorders and varies in severity. In certain cases, mental health disorders can be a temporary product of crises or other experiences, while others are diagnosed as chronic

As we mentioned before, people’s brains are still developing through their mid-20s, and as a result, these changes affect how new experiences and new pieces of information are synthesized in the brain. 

Young adults typically go through transitions between the ages of 18-25 including loosened parental controls as well as a newfound sense of independence and freedom. These experiences, good and bad alike, can significantly shape brain development, resulting in the potential presence of mental illness

7 Most Common Mental Health Disorders in Young Adults

Young adults have the highest prevalence of mental illness (30.6%), resulting in an estimated 1 in 5 being affected between the ages of 18-25. Professionals believe a large sum of this includes college students

Dealing with stress in college can make people more susceptible to mental health disorders because they are transitioning into new routines, responsibilities, and relationships. For example, anxiety disorders in young adults affect approximately 63% of the college student population. 

Anxiety is just one of the many disorders affecting young adults. Below, we’ve outlined the seven most common mental health disorders found in young adults

  • Anxiety Disorders 
  • Eating Disorders
    • Anorexia
    • Bulimia
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality & Mood Disorders
    • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
    • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

It’s important that if you or someone you know is struggling with one or more of the mental health disorders above, they receive help from a mental health professional immediately. That way they can ensure they are being properly diagnosed and given an accurate treatment plan

Young man getting help from a mental health professional.

Dual Diagnosis Treatments for Co-Occurring Addiction and Mental Health Disorders

A dual diagnosis refers to someone who is diagnosed with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorder. Oftentimes, people receive treatment for their substance use disorder, but their mental health condition goes undiagnosed and untreated. 

Individuals with a dual diagnosis require an integrated treatment plan, which is why both disorders must be accurately diagnosed and treated. The treatment plan should address both disorders as interconnected issues rather than separate problems. 

Self-medicating can be more of a risk for people with substance use and mental health disorders. This can result in extremely dangerous consequences. 

The most detrimental effect of self-medicating is that once people start abusing drugs or alcohol as a form of relief, they discover that their goal is only achieved for a short time. The issue arises when they go to use a substance to help themselves a second, third, or fourth time, and so on. 

In time, an individual will work up a tolerance for whatever substance they’re abusing, forcing them to consume more each time they use it to receive the same high. Eventually, this will cause both dependency and addiction.

Young woman struggling with mental health disorder.

Co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders pose a real issue in the young adult community. Ensuring that people are educated and aware of the risks and signs is what will help someone struggling get on the right track to recovery. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with a co-occurring disorder, learn more about our Sage Program, which is open to all adults, to discover how we can help bring you the relief you need.