A comorbid psychiatric disorder is the term used for when a patient meets the diagnostic criteria for more than one mental illness. The substance abuse population has a high incidence of comorbid psychiatric disorder diagnosis. Research has discovered substance abusers often take drugs as a way to self-medicate for a co-existing mental illness. People without substance abuse issues can also be diagnosed with comorbid psychiatric disorder.
Depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and anxiety disorder are typical comorbid disorders seen in the Asperger's population. One study also concluded that 26 percent of Asperger study subjects also had comorbid tic disorders. Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism.
The difficulty of treating a patient with comorbid psychiatric disorder is in determining that two or more disorders exist. Once the individual disorders are identified, mental health professionals also must determine which disorder is causing which symptoms so that effective treatment can be offered. Due to the fact that several mental illnesses have similar symptoms, it is important to determine whether true comorbid psychiatric disorder exists in the client.
In some cases, what appears to be a comorbid psychiatric disorder is actually drug or alcohol addiction, which can give the appearance of comorbid issues. Mental health professionals must carefully extract all evidence of substance abuse and then determine if evidence of additional mental illness still exists. Often, when the substance abuse issues are addressed, the perceived comorbid issue goes away.
A diagnostic checklist is used to determine true comorbidity. The symptoms experienced by the client are held against the diagnostic criteria. While there is the potential for overlapping symptoms, true comorbid disorder will display clear and distinct symptoms of more than one psychiatric illness.
Another feature of comorbid disorder involves exaggerated symptoms of one of the disorders. In a client who is both an alcoholic and has anxiety disorder, the alcoholic symptoms will be more obvious and severe than they would be in a client who only suffered from alcoholism. The manic phases of bipolar disorder may become more obvious when expressed by someone who is also a drug addict.
One study at a Korean university determined that alcoholics with comorbid psychiatric disorder sought help from mental health professionals more often than their singularly alcoholic peers did. Treatment for comorbid disorder is the same as treatment for single disorders. Medications, therapy sessions, and other methods are employed to address each disorder. For example, for a patient with depression and addiction, antidepressants are usually combined with substance abuse treatment.