Updated January 2023
What exactly is a concurrent disorder?
The term "concurrent" means to happen at the same time. The word "disorder" refers to a problem or illness that affects a person's body and/or mind.
Put these terms together, and you have "concurrent disorder"—a term health care professionals use to describe individuals suffering from both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem simultaneously.
Did you know that the latest data shows that 282,000 Canadian adults suffer from a concurrent disorder?
Awareness of the considerable overlap of mental health and addiction issues has sharpened the focus on concurrent disorders in our country.
If you work in a community-serving position, such as law enforcement, education, or health care, a deeper understanding of concurrent disorders can significantly improve the way you support and interact with those afflicted.
In this post, we take a look at common combinations of mental health and addiction disorders, typical symptoms, and other related factors that influence community mental health.
Common Types of Concurrent Disorders
Concurrent disorders are usually categorized into five main types. This is how Health Canada (Best Practices - Concurrent Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders) defines each of those types:
- Substance use combined with mood and anxiety disorders
- Substance use combined with severe and persistent mental disorders
- Substance use combined with personality disorders
- Substance use combined with eating disorders
- Substance use and mental health disorders
How did Health Canada arrive at these categories?
They based them on the types of concurrent disorders most often seen by clinicians and support workers in our communities.
Research is new and limited on this topic, and these broad classifications are meant to help develop guidelines health care and public service providers can use when developing intervention and treatment plans.
What is the goal?
Categorizing concurrent disorders helps improve screening procedures, assessments, and targeted treatment plans (including both emergency and long-term plans of care).
People with concurrent disorders enter the health care system through many different access points—emergency services, family doctors, homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment programs, etc.
We need tools to better identify and support these individuals at every access point.
Understanding the most common types of concurrent disorders, and how to recognize each one, is a key first step.
Characteristics of Concurrent Disorders
It's important to know that there is no one set of symptoms for all concurrent disorders. Each type manifests in its own way. However, there are some common characteristics shared by patients suffering from both mental illness and addiction.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health explains how each problem affects the other, often causing a downward health spiral. Examples include:
- Substance abuse can cause patients to forget to take their prescribed medications.
- A relapse in one area can trigger symptoms in the other area (for example, a return to alcohol abuse can instigate worsening depression symptoms).
- Sometimes people abuse drugs and/or alcohol to "treat" or forget about their mental health problems (initiating a concurrent disorder and making mental health issues worse).
- Sometimes addiction mimics or even hides the symptoms of a mental health problem (making diagnosis very challenging).
Because of the clear overlap between mental health and addiction problems, Health Canada recommends that any patient diagnosed with a mental health disorder also be screened for addiction and vice versa.
Treatment Strategies for Concurrent Disorders
Health Canada promotes an integrated—or "coordinated"—treatment strategy for concurrent disorders, which seeks to treat both the mental health and addiction disorder in tandem.
However, there are some cases where one disorder is given first priority. An example would be treating the eating disorder first if the patient's life is in immediate danger—and once the patient is stable, addressing the addiction.
Or treating the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) first, and following with substance abuse treatment.
In most cases though, Health Canada recommends concurrent, integrated treatment that addresses both disorders at the same time.
A key goal for health care professionals is to figure out the relationship between the two co-occurring disorders: What is the interaction or interplay between the two illnesses? What kind of treatment plan will effectively address both issues?
Training is key for community mental health professionals
Canada is still in the beginning stages of researching, developing, and delivering treatment strategies for concurrent disorders. In its report, Health Canada emphasizes training as key to improving community health care in this area:
"Training and education must be the centrepiece of concurrent disorders program and system development. This includes cross-training, continuing education, formal curricula development and credentialing."
Are you working in a community-serving role and feel you would benefit from training in concurrent disorders or other types of mental illness?
Consider the Community Mental Health & Addictions certificate offered by Kompass Professional Development.
This course is delivered online and taught by highly experienced mental health professionals. Students can complete the course at their own pace in three to six months.
Click below to explore the curriculum, meet the instructor, or chat live with a knowledgeable advisor. We're here to help!