What Is Psychiatric Comorbidity?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 13 January 2020
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Psychiatric comorbidity occurs during a diagnosis by a certified psychiatrist. Generally, it reference cases where a patient is diagnosed with a mental disorder along with another health condition. In modern times, this diagnosis usually encompasses two or more distinct mental disorders. Criteria for psychiatric comorbidty are typically derived from diagnostic manuals, although the phenomenon is contentious in some professional circles.

Comorbidity as a recognized professional term did not truly exist before the 1970s. The word was actually first used in the medical community. In this capacity, comorbidity described cases where a patient might receive an initial medical diagnosis, and during or after this diagnosis also developed a different medical difficulty. For example, a patient might have high blood pressure in addition to an ulcer.

Psychiatrists soon adopted the term as a reference point. Occasionally, the term would refer to a mental condition that existed alongside a physical condition. Modern psychiatric comorbidity usually references coexisting mental disorders, however. As such, the term was used for cases where a psychiatric patient met the diagnostic criteria for more than one recognized mental disorder. A word for such a phenomenon became necessary as more psychiatric patients received dual diagnoses.


Cases of psychiatric comorbidity are usually determined by traditional psychiatry diagnoses. As such, psychiatrists become familiar with the symptomology and criteria for different mental disorders as outlined in professional manuals like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Such diagnoses are often reached through patient interviews and medically developed test evaluations. When more than one condition is involved, a patient may receive a primary diagnosis with a secondary condition. If the psychiatrist deems both disorders as equally prominent, however, then each disorder receives equal weight and distinction.

Studying psychiatric comorbidity is important in mental health care because some conditions occur together in a large percentage of cases. Through understanding why these links exist, psychiatrists can better pinpoint the common origins of these conditions and develop more efficient therapeutic approaches. In fact, psychiatric disorders are often categorized into larger groups because of their shared characteristics. For example, a patient might be diagnosed with both obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder, which are both recognized as anxiety disorders.

Research suggests that over half of psychiatric patients have psychiatric comorbidity for at least two conditions. Some controversy does exist over the term, however. Critics argue that what some psychiatrists diagnose as separate conditions might in fact be different aspects of the same condition. Many mental disorders do have similar symptoms, and the list of mental disorders included and excluded in officially recognized psychiatric diagnosis manuals is ever-changing. Resulting diagnosis or overdiagnosis could potentially lead to ineffective or perhaps even harmful treatment approaches, especially when pharmaceuticals are involved.


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Post 3

@donasmrs-- I'm not sure. It might be because the coexistence of a physical ailment and a psychiatric disorder is fairly common. But it's not as common for people to have two distinct psychiatric disorders at the same time.

I think the point of studying psychiatric comorbidity is to understand how mental health issues relate. Of course, the goal is always finding better treatments. Doctors believe that if someone has symptoms of two different conditions, there is probably a reason for that. This has to be considered when treating that individual or wrong treatments may be used.

Post 2

I wonder why the definition of psychiatric comorbidity changed over the years. Why does it not refer to the coexistence of a physical health condition and a mental health condition anymore?

Post 1

I think I agree with the critics about psychiatric comorbidity. If psychiatry categories and diagnoses were very clear and accurate, I think this term would be beneficial. But they're not. I have a relative who received two different diagnoses from two different psychiatrist. A third psychiatrist claimed that his symptoms were due to one condition not two. When even doctors cannot agree on which disorder or disorders someone is suffering from, how can we expect comorbidity diagnoses to be helpful?

I think that psychiatry, as a field, still has a way to go. First, practitioners need to reach a consensus about symptoms and disorders.

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