Mental Health and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders


The winter holiday season is coming and with that often comes increased risk and awareness of mental health and substance use disorders. Many people often think that mental health causes substance use issues and vice versa. There are links between the two, but mental health and substance use professionals encourage patients to treat them both independently. They must treat them as co-occurring substance use disorders, not group them into one category or the other. 

The Link between Substance Use and Mental Health Issues

Over one in four adults with severe mental health problems also has a substance use issue of some kind. When a person suffers with two or more disorders, they are often considered co-occurring disorders. Substance use issues tend to occur more often with mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

Why do Co-Occurring Disorders Emerge Together?

Sometimes mental health issues and substance use disorders are co-occurring and are hard to discern.

  • Illegal substance use can present like symptoms of mental health disorders.

  • Mental health issues can lead to alcohol or drug abuse through self-medication.

  • Mental health and substance use disorders share root causes, including changes in the brain, genetics, and early exposure to stress or trauma.

Recovering From Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

A person with a mental health and substance use disorder MUST treat both issues separately. Treatment for both issues may include any of the following: rehabilitation, medications, support groups, and talk therapy. Those interested in recovery must:

  • Learn the language involved in mental health and substance use treatment.

  • Understand the science behind the disorder and its short-term and long-term effects.

  • Know that recovery processes for individuals with both mental health and substance use disorders are most effective if they have a specific plan that includes accountability.

National population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder, and vice versa.

How Youth are Impacted by Co-Occurring Disorders

Youth who are exposed to drugs or are diagnosed and treated for mental health disorders are at a higher risk of developing co-occurring disorders, according to The research shows that over 60 percent of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet criteria for another mental illness.

Addiction and drug abuse can happen at any phase of life, however, drug use typically starts in youth, which is also when mental health issues emerge. During brain development in youth, decision making and impulse control mature later, which is why youth are at a higher risk for drug use and abuse. Genetics also play into this, as well as children who are diagnosed with mental health issues, such as ADHD or bipolar, and are treated with medication that is highly addictive on its own.

Make the Call

If you or someone you know may be suffering from both a mental health and substance use disorder, or have a higher risk of developing co-occurring conditions, our qualified Substance Abuse Counselors can help. Call Stepping Stones in Lincoln, NE today at 402-488-6511 or visit our website at


SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Mental Health, Detailed Tables. Available at: