A-Z Teen Health Glossary

Teen Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment

A co-occurring disorder specifically refers to a mental health disorder coupled with substance abuse, or substance dependence (also known as addiction). A significant portion of people who struggle with a mental health problem, from mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression, to other disorders such as anxiety disorders and eating disorders, also have a substance abuse disorder. It’s important to offer teen co-occurring disorder treatment, rather than treat these issues separately.

What Does Teen Co-Occurring Disorder Look Like?

  • Most mental health problems cause teens to feel distressed and helpless at times, from experiencing delusions to suddenly being confronted with extremely negative and self-destructive thoughts. Drugs, both legal and illegal, can help teens temporarily cope with these feelings. This prompts some to begins taking drugs as a way to self-medicate, despite the risk of dependence.
  • Usually, this substance use makes the original problem even worse, by concentrating and strengthening symptoms during sobriety, or by causing fits of anxiety and suicidal thinking after drug use.
  • Teens who behave erratically and often lie about where they are and where they have been may be engaged in drug use, sometimes as a way to deal with their mental problems without telling others.

Signs of Teen Co-Occurring Disorder

Extreme mood shifts

Drug paraphernalia

Frequent lying

Losing interest in old habits

Losing old friends

Lagging at school or work

Avoiding other people

Causes of Teen Co-Occurring Disorder

Mental health problems – the greatest risk factor is one of the main symptoms – a co-occurring disorder usually occurs when substance use follows the appearance of a mental illness, and it’s with substance abuse that the illness itself grows stronger, perpetuating the cycle. There are cases where substance use is what triggers the onset of anxiety, depression, and other disorders, as well.

Access to drugs – while it is not particularly difficult for teens to gain access to alcohol or marijuana, other drugs are a little harder to find, from prescription medication to “hard drugs” like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Often, teens steal prescription medication from friends and family members, or make contacts for buying other drugs through parties and late nights.

Stress – considerable academic and domestic stress, as well as traumatic experiences can push a teen to use drugs as a way to cope with, or overcome a challenge, while only producing a new obstacle in the process.

Teen Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment | Paradigm Malibu

What Are the Causes of Teen Depression?

Depressive disorders are recognized first through their symptoms and are then diagnosed through a series of tests. Explanations for why depressive symptoms occur vary from person to person, but known causes include:

Physical diseases - Especially in the brain and endocrine system.

Hormone imbalance – Sometimes caused by hypothyroidism, a genetic condition, or as part of a pregnancy.

Neurotransmitter imbalance – Some people with depression may struggle with a shortage of certain important mood-regulating neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Chronic pain and chronic fatigue – these conditions are complex, at times a result of genetics, at other times the result of frequent injuries. Constant pain can lead to depression.

Environmental factors – Such as trauma, bullying, upbringing, and loss.

Excessive substance use – drug use can affect a person’s brain and mood regulation, causing mood swings, low moods, and depressive symptoms.

Some of these causes are a matter of nurture, others are a matter of nature. In most cases, people experience a combination of both before they have their first depressive episode. After that, episodes may be triggered by something sad, or come out of nowhere.


of full time employees are estimated to struggle with co-occurring disorder, pointing out that the problem can exist long before it leaves people unable to function


or less of people with co-occurring disorder seek and find treatment for either condition, and 5% treat both


people struggle with both addiction and a mental disorder

How Can I Help My Teen with Co-Occurring Disorder?

Gain your teen’s full trust – it is critical to have your teen’s full confidence if you want to help them get better. Proper communication between you and your teen is important to understanding the full breadth of the problem and how far back it goes. Your teen needs to know that you’re in their corner, and that you want to help them, and not judge or hurt them. Many teens with mental health issues fear the repercussions of getting help.

Learn more about your teen’s drug habits – every drug is different, and comes with different risk factors, signs, and symptoms. Understanding what drugs your teen might have used can give you a better idea of what to watch out for, and how to help them stay clean throughout the recovery process.

Help support your teen throughout the recovery process – while a residential program is a massive step in the right direction and can help a teen seek out the tools they need to kickstart their recovery, recovery is an ongoing process with many ups and downs. Help your teen find support groups, therapists, alternative treatments, sports, and other methods to keep them on the straight-and-narrow.

What Types of Teen Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment Are Available

While a co-occurring disorder is, in practice, a case of two disorders occurring at the same time, the name itself actually points towards the fact that treatment has to be co-occurring, as well. You cannot treat the addiction without tackling the mental health problems, and you cannot treat the mental health problems without taking on the addiction issue. Someone who struggles with a mental disorder and substance use requires a treatment plan that tackles both at the same time – in other words, treatment has to be holistic, and built entirely around each separate case. Most treatments rely on psychotherapy to help patients in the short-term, and to give them the toolset with which to recover from substance use in the long-term.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy is a form of therapy that involves sitting down to speak about thoughts and behaviors and analyze them with the help of a professional. Therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy are centered on helping patients identify negative thoughts and behaviors, and consciously disrupt them and replace them with prepared, affirmative thoughts.

Exercises can be used at home to reinforce these positive beliefs and replace the negative thinking. Even without the help of medication, this type of therapy is highly effective in a large variety of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

Group Therapy

Another form of therapy that is highly effective for co-occurring disorders is group therapy. It’s important for people with substance issues and mental health issues to identify with others who struggle in a similar way. Hearing about the successes and challenges others have experienced can be uplifting and motivating, or it may provide an individual with the insight they needed in making a breakthrough for themselves.

Lifestyle Changes

Another significant factor in an individual’s life is the way they live. For teens to effectively treat their drug use and other problems, they have to alter the way they treat themselves. Regularly engaging in exercise, going out of their way to engage in healthy social behavior, make new friends, seek out new habits and hobbies, and keeping a schedule that prioritizes certain responsibilities and gives teens the time they need to dedicate to pursuits they care about are all examples of positive lifestyle changes that help a teen cope with stress, and keep their mind off negative thinking.


While co-occurring disorders sometimes involve the inappropriate use of medication, antidepressants may be prescribed in cases where individuals are experiencing severe depressive or anxious symptoms and require medication to cope with their emotions.

Antidepressants are not addictive in the same sense as some other forms of medication, including anti-anxiety drugs and ADHD treatment, but they can still become habit-forming if a patient relies on them entirely as a form of treatment. They should be seen as a treatment aid rather than a solution to the problem.

Teen Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment at Paradigm Malibu

Paradigm Malibu offers several locations throughout the Los Angeles area dedicated to helping teens who struggle with a wide variety of behavioral and mental health issues. All locations are chosen to take advantage of the region’s abundant beauty, giving teens the opportunity to spend a large portion of their stay surrounded by nature. But Paradigm offers much more than scenic locales.

Each location is set up to treat small groups of teens at a time, through talk therapy, relaxation techniques, arts and music therapy, classroom sessions, group activities, and more. Teen co-occurring disorder treatment begins with helping a teen figure out what it means to stay sober, and how recovery can be simplified through schedules, rules, lifestyle changes, and simple exercises.

Integrated Treatment

The treatment plan for a teenager who struggles with anxiety and alcohol abuse would be different than that of a teenager who struggles with depression and a variety of drugs. Different causes and histories also determine how professionals would go about helping your teen. The first step to helping a teen is working with them and the parents to figure out the best treatment plan. From there, residential treatment at Paradigm Malibu is catered to tackle a teen’s mental health holistically.

A Stricter Focus

By taking on smaller groups, Paradigm Malibu not only avoids unexpected personality clashes or social unrest at the facility, but also manages to give each teen the individual attention they need for the most effective treatment. It’s important to treat teens together, to help them get a sense of how to engage with others during and after treatment and develop healthier and more effective ways of communicating with others.

I’m an artist based in Los Angeles and working full time, as a single parent, I was not always aware of what was happening with my son. At 16 his behavior took a destructive turn and I felt helpless in knowing how to deal with his illness and how to make it better. Growing up I always found healing close to the ocean so as soon as I researched online and found Paradigm I knew it would be a good place to send him. There is no such thing as “fixing” someone who suffers from mental illness and addiction but Paradigm provided the necessary tools and emotional support we needed to make a change. The family therapy sessions helped me realize a lot about myself and showed me how to be a better parent. I am forever grateful to this facility and staff for helping us when I felt at a dead end.
- G. H.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teen Co-Occurring Disorder

How do I know if I have a co-occurring disorder?

Finding out on your own is very difficult. A diagnosis for a mental health disorders is made through a professional, and through rigorous, careful diagnostic guidelines. That being said, there are ways for you to figure out if something might be wrong, so you can consider making an appointment with a mental health professional.

If you find yourself experiencing depressive or anxious symptoms, such as intense fear or something relatively “normal” or thoughts to do with wanting to die or harm yourself, then you may be going through something that requires special attention.

Furthermore, if you find yourself using drugs or alcohol, especially illegal ones, or medication that doesn’t belong to you, then you’re at a great risk for developing a dependence on these substances.

Is it bad to use alcohol to relax?

Some people wonder at what point alcohol goes from being something you can enjoy to being something you need to worry about. For any teen, alcohol is something you simply shouldn’t drink at all. While there are legal exceptions in California for alcohol consumption at home in the presence of family for celebrations and the like, casual alcohol use among teens presents a greater risk than it does among adults. Something about the teenage brain is more susceptible to dependence and addiction, and most people who struggle with drug abuse started using drugs early on in their life.

Nonetheless, alcohol is not something you should use to relax or unwind. While it’s a common trope in media to consume alcohol as a way to cap off a long day, habitual use of any drug can be dangerous. It is generally safe to consume alcohol occasionally and reasonably, in the company of others, but any repetitive and habitual drug use is dangerous, especially as a way to deal with stress.

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