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Co-Occurring Disorders and Women

A co-occurring disorder, also referred to as a dual diagnosis, is when an individual has any combination of mental illness in addition to addiction.

Although reports indicate that the male population struggle with addiction at a higher rate than females (nearly 2.5%), females are at greater risk for developing a co-occurring disorder. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found approximately three percent of all women in America have both a mental disorder and struggle with substance use disorder. The onset of mental health disorders as well as substance use disorder can be due to any number of reasons. There are several co-occurring disorders that are common amongst women who have substance use disorder.

woman alone


Depression is a mental health illness that manifests as negative feelings affecting how one functions. Feelings of extreme sadness, constant fatigue, diminished energy, worthlessness, concentration difficulties, and suicidal ideations are all examples of symptoms that can present when a woman suffers from mild to severe depression. Women struggling with depression are at an increased risk for developing a substance use disorder, and women that use drugs and/ or alcohol are more likely to experience depression. Moreover, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression. Studies have deduced that close to half of the reported women with substance use disorder also suffer from depression. Hence, the co-occurrence of depression and substance use disorder is highly common, especially in women. 

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) most commonly develops as a direct result of experiencing and/ or witnessing a severely traumatic event (i.e. a terrorist attack, rape, violent assault, war, natural disaster…etc.). According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are two times more likely to have PTSD as men. Any individual exposed to a traumatic event will likely have an emotional response that may elicit emotional symptoms, but for individuals with PTSD the symptoms persist and result in continued distress, preoccupying the individual leading to an inability to properly function. Some women will attempt to obtain relief through the abuse of drugs and/ or alcohol from the all-consuming thoughts that accompany PTSD. This, in turn, can lead to substance use disorder. The American Psychiatric Association further notes that between thirteen to twenty-one percent of car accident survivors develop PTSD, and between twenty to fifty percent of assault, rape, or mass shootings develop PTSD.

Anxiety Disorders

There is a plethora of anxiety disorders listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), various eating disorders (i.e. anorexia, bulimia, binge eating…etc.), and an array of different phobias make up the majority of anxiety disorders that have the propensity to develop and affect women with substance use disorder. The development of anxiety disorders can also be attributed to genetics, environmental factors, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.


There are several general treatment options when it comes to women with a dual diagnosis. Most importantly, anyone seeking treatment with a dual diagnosis should limit their search to programs that specifically work with dual diagnosis clients. Many women attempt to self-medicate through the use of illicit substances and/ or abusing legal substances. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the abuse of drugs and/ or alcohol to initiate the manifestation of symptoms of a dormant mental health disorder, or even instigate the development a new mental health disorder. Once diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder, in terms of treatment, it is virtually irrelevant which disorder appeared first. Rather, it is of utmost importance to address each disorder simultaneously and with balanced and equal attention. For this reason, although there are many treatment programs available, selecting a program that is equipped to work with a dual diagnosis client can provide the best option for obtaining the most successful outcome. 

woman seeking help

Further Information

Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly dangerous.

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please get help as soon as possible. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. There is no reason to go through this alone. Please feel free to reach out to us for further information or with any questions regarding substance abuse or addiction. 


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