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Teen Co-Occurring Disorders

Teenagers battling addiction often struggle with other mental illnesses. Treating both conditions is crucial to long-term addiction recovery.

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Mental Disorders and Drug Abuse in Teens

Drug abuse and mental disorders like depression and anxiety are commonly found together in teens. In fact, dual diagnosis occurs in more than half of all teens who abuse drugs.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6 in 10 substance abusers also have a mental disorder.

The human brain is still developing well into a person’s early 20s. Most mental illnesses develop during this period of growth. This period is also when the brain is most vulnerable to damage from drug abuse.

Many addiction specialists believe teens with mood disorders turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Psychologists conduct research everyday to better understand the links between addiction and mood disorders. Specialized treatment centers have the expertise and resources to help teens with co-occurring disorders recover.

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Teen Depression and Addiction

For both teens and adults, drug addiction and depression are a common and dangerous combination. Depression can arise from a blend of biological, genetic, psychological and environmental factors. Addiction has similar roots, so it’s unsurprising that the two frequently co-occur.

Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness and self doubt that greatly interfere with daily life.

Adolescence is a time of change for teens. As their bodies, home lives, and even brain chemistries change, teens may have a hard time coping. Parental guidance is crucial during this period. Without it, a common case of the adolescent “blues” can develop into teen depression and possible drug abuse. Many teens turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate for depression.

Teens suffering from depression often appear sad or anxious, but that’s not always the case. Depressed teens might also lash out angrily at loved ones over seemingly insignificant things. Parents might feel unsure about whether their child is just “acting out” or suffering from depression. If a teen’s behavior drastically changes during adolescence, leading to self-harm, violence or drug abuse, they might be struggling with depression.

Common symptoms of teen depression include:

  • Continuous anxious or “empty” mood
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Body aches and pains

Depressed episodes can be powerful relapse triggers for recovering teens. There’s no “quick fix” for addiction, and treating depression can take a long time. It’s crucial to treat both illnesses together so untreated depression doesn’t cause a relapse into addiction or vise versa.

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Teen Anxiety and Addiction

Feeling anxious or scared is part of growing up. When nervousness and fear start interfering with a teen’s daily life, however, an anxiety disorder might be forming.

One in eight children are affected by an anxiety disorder, but only 20 percent of affected children receive treatment.

Common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Startling easily
  • Trembling

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Generalized anxiety disorders rarely develop before adolescence. On the surface, anxiety disorders can look like normal teenage “growing pains.” Teens suffering from anxiety disorders, however, will feel incapable of functioning due to worry. They will avoid school, work and activities they used to enjoy like socializing with friends.

Many teens will turn to central nervous system (CNS) depressants like alcohol to calm hyperactive brain activity that leads to anxiety disorders. But this relief is only temporary. Over time teens become dependent on the substance to feel “normal,” which can quickly lead to addiction.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, teens with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop bipolar disorders than their peers. Treating co-occurring anxiety disorders and drug abuse early on can prevent more severe disorders and addictions from developing later.

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Teen Bipolar Disorder and Addiction

Bipolar disorder is characterized by severe swings between extremely happy, productive moods and depressed, inactive moods.

Most teens have emotional “ups” and “downs.” Bipolar mood swings are much stronger than typical “teen angst.” During bipolar episodes, teens will seem like completely different people. Teens having a bipolar episode will stay in that mood for weeks at a time, their daily routines completely disrupted.

The Two Extremes of Bipolar Disorder
Manic Periods Depressed Periods
Feeling “high” or euphoric
Talking very quickly
Being unfocused or easily distracted
Inflated sense of competence
Impulse behavior and risk-taking
Feeling sad or hopeless
Suicidal thoughts
Changes in eating and sleeping habits
Trouble concentrating

Many therapists insist every teenage bipolar diagnosis be screened for alcohol or drug problems. Teens suffering from bipolar disorder experience such dramatic mood swings that they will often do anything to make them stop. This commonly means turning to drugs or alcohol.

It’s important for parents to be emotionally supportive of teens suffering from bipolar disorder. Helping teens find healthy emotional outlets and alternatives to drug use is also crucial for long-term recovery.

Teen Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Addiction

Those suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with impulsiveness, hyperactivity and inattention.

Teens with ADHD are far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than their peers. One national study shows that 35 percent of teens with ADHD have used one or more substance. Only 20 percent of teens without ADHD reported the same.

Researchers have many theories about how ADHD and drug abuse are connected. Some believe low levels of the happiness-inducing neurochemical dopamine can cause ADHD and lead to drug abuse simultaneously.

Others believe the personal conduct problems ADHD causes in young teens are to blame. Teens suffering from ADHD are often punished in school and at home for hyperactive behavior they can’t control. This leads to mental stress on young teens that can cause severe feelings of anxiety and even depression, leading to self-medication with drugs or alcohol.

Common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Restlessness
  • Aggression
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Often interrupting others
  • Frequent procrastination

Teens with untreated ADHD are three times more likely to suffer from drug or alcohol addiction as adults. Treating ADHD and co-occurring drug abuse while teens are young is crucial to preventing full-fledged addictions from forming.

There have also been studies that suggest that teens who have been prescribed ADHD medications for many years are more likely to abuse substances later in life. Many therapists see young adults who have been on ADHD medications since early childhood abusing substances at higher rates in early adulthood.

Treating Teen Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Some addiction rehabs may not treat underlying mood disorders. Additionally, mental health counseling might not treat co-occurring drug abuse. To keep teens with co-occurring disorders from “falling between the cracks,” it’s important to treat both disorders at once.

Teens diagnosed with co-occurring disorders typically aren’t successful in traditional addiction treatment programs. Treatment approaches like the 12-step recovery model may be too confrontational for teens with a dual diagnosis. The stress these teens suffer in such programs can be counterproductive to addiction recovery.

Treatment programs that build positive social connections are often effective. Recovery groups designed specifically for teens play an important role in providing emotional support. Teaching teens new skills to cope with negative feelings helps treat mental illness and drug addiction. Learn more about teen treatment programs and techniques.

Find Help for Teen Addiction Today

Identifying a problem is only the first step toward your teen’s long-term health. The next recommended step is to find a drug treatment and recovery program. Drug abuse and addiction is difficult to treat on its own, let alone alongside a mental health disorder. Inpatient and outpatient treatment centers offer programs designed to help teens overcome both obstacles.

Contact a treatment provider for more information about teen treatment options today.


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