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Co-occurring Disorders and Modernizing Behavioral Health Treatment

Written by Richelle Gregory, Director of Community Services at Clinton County Addiction Services. Edited by Bryn Judkins.

What is Behavioral Health?

People often mistake behavioral health and mental health as interchangeable, however, this is not true. Mental health focuses only on someone’s cognitive area of well-being, while behavioral health encompasses a broad set of areas of well-being. Behavioral health also describes the connection between our behaviors (e.g. eating, drinking, exercising), and our overall well-being.

The idea is that indulging in certain behaviors, or choosing to behave a certain way, will directly impact different areas of our well-being. Every day, our behaviors result in a ripple effect of negative or positive impacts to our overall well-being. Our behaviors influence several interconnected areas of well-being, including our physical health, relationships, spiritual health, productivity and overall daily functioning.

Co-occurring Disorders and Addiction

Interestingly, because our behaviors and areas of well-being are all interconnected, it’s common for someone to be struggling with their wellness in more than one area. For example, someone may have a mental health component and an addiction, or perhaps they have a mental health condition and a physical health issue. These types of cases are referred to as co-occurring disorders.

In a co-occuring disorder case with addiction, someone may develop undesired emotions (e.g. guilt, shame) after engaging in an addictive behavior. The negative feelings caused by the behaviors can trigger symptoms of other underlying conditions, such as depression or anxiety. Inversely, someone’s deep, underlying emotional or mental health issues are often the cause of addiction to a substance or a certain behavior. A cycle of intense, negative feelings and associated negative behaviors develops, and it can become difficult to treat the disorder using traditional methods.

Modern Treatment Approach

Traditionally, the method of treatment for behavioral health was a “stay in your own lane approach”. We now know that only through communication, collaboration and partnership can we have lasting improvement on the behavioral health wellness of an individual and an overall community. Treating behavioral health issues is a unique challenge that requires recognizing the continuum of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery across the entire spectrum of wellness. The behavioral health treatment system is transitioning to a more inclusive holistic approach, recognizing that communication is even more important with co-occurring disorders. This approach values all information and resources and recognizes the need for individualization. Including non-traditional supports, such as peer support, has shown how valuable lived experience is for engagement and follow-through. Peers are able to use their experience to build trust and share skills in navigating the various support systems.

For example, a modern approach to behavioral health may look like this: a psychiatrist prescribes medication to treat someone’s chemical imbalance for a mood disorder. However, the person is also struggling with a gambling addiction that, at times, makes it difficult to come up with the copay for his medication. The providers then realize that there is a higher rate of success with co-occurring disorders to utilize a collaborative team approach and to communicate with all available resources in the community. The partnerships can work simultaneously and supportively to improve the person’s overall wellness. The prescriber, treatment provider, peer support, care manager and supportive family members can work with the individual to develop a plan that is supportive to the individual and addresses several areas of functioning.

Behavioral Health at MHAB

At MHAB, we work with several partner providers in order to sustain a modern, holistic approach to treating behavioral health, addiction, and substance use disorder. Our partner, Behavioral Health Services North (BHSN), develops a unique plan for the individual that incorporates a collaborative approach to treatment. The experts at BHSN ensure that any individual with co-occurring disorders gets the support that they need. At the MHAB Life Skills Campus, certified recovery coaches and recovery peer advocates at the All Ways to Recovery Community Center host peer support groups and daily check-ins, as well as yoga for physical health and arts and crafts sessions for creative stimulation.

As a community we must recognize the importance of working together to take a holistic view of treatment, most urgently, for those with co-occurring disorders. Additionally, we need to promote education and encourage the incorporation of screenings for co-occurring disorders. We cannot operate in silos and the care of individuals cannot be compartmental. It is necessary for our community to continue to work toward improving access to treatment and eliminating stigma so those that need assistance are willing and able to get the support and resources that they need. We must work inclusively with the individual, including natural supports and community partners to improve the behavioral health of the individual, improving individual wellness creating the foundation for community wellness.

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