The Dangers of a Co-Occurring Disorder Going Untreated

woman with co-occurring disorderCo-occurring disorders can be infinitely difficult to diagnose. Whether a mental illness occurs in tandem with other mental illness or substance abuse, the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of comorbidities remain elusive at best. What doctors do know is that treatment for co-occurring disorders should treat both illnesses and foster healthy coping habits for the individual. Co-occurring disorders are seldom fleeting; a person experiencing comorbidity often must manage the condition for life.

There is a myriad of reasons why people with co-occurring disorders remain untreated. Financial issues can certainly be a hindrance, as can the person’s own perception of his or her illnesses. Going further, it can be difficult to treat those illnesses once a person is at a treatment center. According to, mental illnesses and substance abuse problems go hand in hand, making it both an obstacle to getting treatment and to receiving the proper care. An estimated 50 percent of persons with a diagnosed severe mental illness are affected by substance abuse. Conversely, the figures tend to be the same; about 50 percent of drug users and nearly 40 percent of alcohol abusers have at least one diagnosable mental illness.

Having two mental illnesses at once can exacerbate and complicate the treatment process because the symptoms of one illness can dilute or enhance the symptoms of the other. For example, if a person uses cocaine but has severe anxiety, the side effects of cocaine use can heighten the user’s anxiety and sense of paranoia. When this happens, it can be very hard for a person to receive the appropriate care for both illnesses. If this happens, a person may choose to go untreated (and self-medicate) or end up receiving minimal or inappropriate care.

What Happens if Dual Diagnosis Goes Untreated?

As mentioned, one result of untreated comorbidity is self-medication. This is a huge concern as many of those suffering from co-occurring disorders already self-medicate as a means of easing or combating certain symptoms. Unfortunately, this can result in addiction and tolerance. Here are a few other risks of going untreated:

  • Increasingly bad episodes – It is likely that the longer a person waits to get treated, the more he/she will experience more frequent and severe episodes of the mental illness and its symptoms, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.
  • Infectious disease – Especially when a mental illness is diagnosed along with a substance abuse disorder, there runs a high risk for that person contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Why? When a person is using drugs or alcohol, he/she is more likely to engage in unsafe sexual behavior as a result of lowered inhibitions. A study of Philadelphia Medicaid claims found that those with affective disorders and schizophrenia were more likely to have contracted HIV (3.8 and 1.5 times more likely, respectively).
  • Health ailments – Frequently mental illnesses and substance abuse can manifest in ways that deteriorate the body’s internal structure and function. When left untreated, these new symptoms (for example, coughing or wheezing as a result of cigarette smoking) may be ignored or neglected. For instance, persons with psychotic disorders are more likely to have heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and hypertension, among other things.
  • Problems with home life, school, and family – If left untreated, a co-occurring disorder can cause a variety of problems for the person who experiences it. A teenager with untreated ADHD may act out in school, turn to drugs, or get in a lot of trouble as a result of his/her illness. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law notes that youths, especially, have higher rates of suicide, truancy, homelessness, and unemployment when they have untreated comorbidity.

Getting the right treatment for co-occurring disorders can be a tough thing to do. We know that. The counselors and clinicians at The Oaks at La Paloma understand your daily struggle and know how difficult it can be to find the best way to manage your illnesses. Call us today at 901-350-4575 to learn more about how our team can help you to embark on recovery.