How can comorbidity be diagnosed?

The high rate of comorbidity between drug use disorders and other mental illnesses argues for a comprehensive approach to intervention that identifies and evaluates each disorder concurrently, providing treatment as needed. The needed approach calls for broad assessment tools that are less likely to result in a missed diagnosis. Accordingly, patients entering treatment for psychiatric illnesses should also be screened for substance use disorders and vice versa. Accurate diagnosis is complicated, however, by the similarities between drug-related symptoms such as withdrawal and those of potentially comorbid mental disorders. Thus, when people who abuse drugs enter treatment, it may be necessary to observe them after a period of abstinence in order to distinguish between the effects of substance intoxication or withdrawal and the symptoms of comorbid mental disorders. This practice would allow for a more accurate diagnosis and more targeted treatment.

Exposure to Traumatic Events Puts People at Higher Risk of Substance Use Disorders

Physically or emotionally traumatized people are at much higher risk of abusing licit, illicit, and prescription drugs. This linkage is of particular concern for returning veterans since nearly 1 in 5 military service members back from Iraq and Afghanistan have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Recent epidemiological studies suggest that as many as half of all veterans diagnosed with PTSD also have a co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD), which could pose an enormous challenge for our health care system. Many PTSD programs do not accept individuals with active SUDs, and traditional SUD clinics defer treatment of trauma-related issues. Nevertheless, there are treatments at different stages of clinical validation for comorbid PTSD and SUD; these include various combinations of psychosocial (e.g., exposure therapy) and pharmacologic (e.g., mood stabilizers, anxiolytics, and antidepressants) interventions. However, research is urgently needed to identify the best treatment strategies for addressing PTSD/SUD comorbidities, and to explore whether different treatments might be needed in response to civilian versus combat PTSD.

This page was last updated September 2010