Alcoholism and Mental Illness 

Alcoholism and Mental Illness 

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical and mental health condition, not a moral issue. AUD was known as “alcoholism” until 1994, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) discarded that term in favor of “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence.” The organization updated the terminology again in 2013 to “alcohol use disorder”.  The APA no longer clinically use “alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” because they’re less accurate and contribute to stigma around the condition. What is the connection between alcoholism and mental illness? 

Read on to learn why AUD is considered a mental health condition, which mental health conditions commonly occur alongside it, and treatment options.

Alcoholism and Mental Health

What is a Mental Health Problem?

Mental health problems refer to a range of conditions that prevent affected individuals from interacting as normal with others as well as with their environment. Some of the most common types of mental health issues include depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, and personality disorder. This type of condition can seriously affect a person’s ability to deal with life, eventually getting so bad that the individual may need to stay in long-term care.

Alcoholism and Mental Illness

Alcoholism involves a physical addiction, but, as mentioned above, it also interferes with the person’s mental state to such an extent that they may struggle to interact normally with the environment, so it is for this reason that it is referred to as a mental health problem. As well as physical dependence, the individual also has psychological dependence, which means that they experience cravings and just cannot cope without alcohol. The need to continue with the behavior involves a mental compulsion, and it involves denial.

Alcohol and the Brain 

Recent scientific studies have confirmed that continuing alcohol use causes changes to the brain and that those changes may be permanent. Alcohol is a depressant, signaling the central nervous system to slow down motor, cognitive, and other vital functions. As a result, the body’s reaction time is slower, and balance, judgment and coordination decline. Addictive substances like alcohol affect the pleasure and reward center of the brain, triggering an increase in dopamine levels. This is particularly dangerous for alcoholism and mental illness 

Dopamine, known as the “happy” chemical, is naturally released by the brain in reaction to a pleasurable experience, reinforcing that experience as “good.” Alcohol causes unnaturally high levels of dopamine to be released, delivering an intense response and strongly ingraining the desire to repeat the experience.

Questions to Consider: 

Alcoholism is a substance use disorder that develops gradually over time, and when dealing with alcoholism and mental illness it can be difficult to differentiate when a problem begins. It can be difficult to pinpoint when social drinking progresses into problematic alcohol abuse. The following 11 questions can help determine whether you have alcohol use disorder (answer yes or no):

  1. Do you end up drinking more or for longer than planned?
  2. Have you tried to quit drinking and failed?
  3. Do you spend a lot of time drinking or dealing with the after-effects of alcohol?
  4. Do you experience intense cravings for alcohol?
  5. Is drinking alcohol interfering with your ability to perform at your job or take care of your family?
  6. Has drinking led to problems in your relationships?
  7. Have you cut back or given up previously enjoyed activities to drink?
  8. Have you put yourself or others in danger under the influence of alcohol? 
  9. Do you continue to drink even though it’s causing physical and/or mental health problems? 
  10. Do you find that over time, you need more drinks to get the same effects?
  11. Do you experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, restlessness, and trouble sleeping when the effects of alcohol wear off?

How do Mental Illnesses and Alcoholism Play into Each Other?

Rather than thinking in terms of cause and effect, it’s helpful to view the co-occurring nature of these conditions. Mental illnesses can contribute to substance use disorders, and substance use disorders can contribute to the development of mental illnesses. For example, individuals might drink because they’re depressed (to alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders). On the other hand, excessive drinking could stimulate symptoms of depression or anxiety.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “about half of all people who have one condition also have the other.” When the conditions occur simultaneously, professionals refer to the diagnosis as a co-occurring disorder, comorbidity or dual diagnosis.

Stigma of  Alcoholism and Mental Illness

It is important to realize that while some individuals are open and honest about their well-being, others may deny having a problem at all. Denial is a common reaction for those who are not yet ready to get help. There are various explanations as to why someone may negate they have a problem.

For instance, individuals struggling with alcoholism and mental illness are sometimes ashamed to admit there is something wrong. They might view their problem as a personal shortcoming or a failure that they are embarrassed to open up about. Alcoholism and mental health conditions can be a sensitive subject. In cases such as these, it may be beneficial to discuss the matter with an alcohol counselor or treatment provider.

How Is A Dual Diagnosis of Alcoholism and Mental Illness Treated?

It is vital that once a person breaks away from alcohol, they have any mental health problems dealt with. If they do not do this, it can mean that life in recovery could become a real struggle; the individual could then use this as an excuse to relapse. There are many treatments available to help manage the symptoms of mental health conditions; the hardest part is acknowledging there is a problem that needs fixing.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to treating a dual diagnosis. Typically, a comprehensive recovery plan is the safest and most effective way to overcome a co-occurring disorder. These plans incorporate various therapies and aftercare programs that address both alcohol abuse and mental health condition.

Contact Harmony Ridge & Take Control Of Your Life Today!

It is not easy to accept the crippling effects of addiction on our lives, and it’s even harder to accept to face them. The process may seem daunting, and you may feel the battle is already lost. However, we at Harmony Ridge are here to assure you that freedom from addiction is always worth pursuing. You and your loved ones deserve a fulfilling life, free from addiction, where you can thrive and prosper. If you’re ready to make this liberating leap forward, contact us today and let us craft a better future together.


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