Co-Occurring Disorders in Adolescence


By Rachel Haug, LCSW – April 19, 2022

Adolescence is a time of rapid brain and body development through the onset of puberty, which will begin to influence both your child’s physical and mental health. During this time, a young person can begin to develop symptoms that may support a mental health diagnosis, especially if paired with genetic, environmental or situational factors.

Some of the most common psychiatric disorders seen in adolescence include mood disorders, like depressive disorder, adjustment disorder, or borderline personality disorder; anxiety disorder, both generalized and social anxiety; disruptive behavior disorders, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. If symptoms of one of these disorders are combined with drug or alcohol use, a co-occurring disorder could develop over time.

A co-occurring disorder is known as the presence of both a mental health diagnosis and a substance abuse disorder. There is a lot speculation about which comes first, the substance abuse disorder or the mental health concern; however, there is strong evidence that shows individuals struggling with an undiagnosed mental health problem often turn to self-medicating through the use of drugs or alcohol. Studies have shown that the younger a person is when they begin using drugs or alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted to the substance later in life.

As a parent it is important to be aware of the signs your child may show if experiencing an onset of a mental health or substance abuse disorder. First, it’s important to know your family’s medical history. For example, if you or your child’s other parent have experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety or have struggled with substance abuse or addiction, it is likely your child may experience similar symptoms or become prone to addiction if they begin using drugs or alcohol.

It is also important to make sure an open line of communication with your child is maintained to ensure symptoms are being addressed as they present themselves. If you notice a change in your child’s mood or behavior, ask them about it and allow them a space to speak freely without judgment. Some of the most common risk factors for an anxiety or mood disorder in adolescence include parental history of anxiety, mood disorder or other mental health disorder, an increase in academic or social pressures, stressful family environments, early or significant losses (parental death, divorce, termination of a relationship), chronic illness, history of being bullied (in person or cyberbullying), or history of neglect or abuse.

Treating your child’s symptoms is vital and services are readily available. Treatment could include outpatient individual or group-based therapies, psychiatric medication management, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy, along with other behavioral therapies, could provide some insight into your child’s mental health concerns and ease your child’s ability to navigate what could be a difficult time.

The best place to start would be consulting with your child’s Youth First Social Worker or pediatrician to discuss best treatment options for their specific needs. Early intervention is key! Your child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and academic performance. There is a community of mental health professionals available to rally around you and your child, so don’t hesitate to reach out for support! You and your child are never alone.