Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

Alcohol addiction is a severe, complicated, and often chronic disease that results in cycles of relapse and sobriety. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol abuse comes in many shapes and forms – it’s not just stereotypical binge drinking (though that still counts).

Anyone who has a dependency on alcohol has an addiction – something that’s often referred to as functional alcoholism. If you find yourself unable to control your drinking or find it difficult to stop, chances are you’ve got a problem.

Left untreated, alcohol dependence can lead to various physical and mental health problems – it can even lead to alcohol poisoning, an often deadly dilemma in some cases. Though it sounds daunting, alcohol addiction is treatable. Let’s look at alcohol use disorder and its link with mental illness.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Simply put, alcohol addiction is a type of substance use disorder. It’s characterized by a desire and need to drink alcohol regularly, with an inability to stop or control your consumption. It’s recognized as a chronic disease because, if left untreated, it gets worse over time.

While most people think of severe alcohol abuse as addiction, a dependency can develop with any alcohol misuse. Being unable to relax or unwind without a glass of wine is just as much of an addiction as drinking alcohol every day.

What Causes an Addiction to Alcohol?

As a chronic disease, alcohol addiction is a gradual process. You don’t just develop a dependency overnight; it takes time. Regular alcohol consumption over a long period is one factor that contributes to addiction, though there are a host of other factors that also play a part. According to the American Medical Association, alcohol abuse has “genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors” that determine how likely a person is to develop an addiction.

For example, if you’re in an environment that supports and promotes excessive drinking, your chances of developing an alcohol addiction are higher. The same goes for any neglectful, abusive, or stressful environment; when you’re affected by your surroundings, you’re more likely to turn to alcohol to help deal with your emotions. Those who suffer from a mental health disorder are also more at risk of developing an addiction than others for precisely the same reasons as listed above.

A major contributing factor to developing any drug or alcohol addiction is its effect on the brain. Whenever you drink alcohol, your brain is flooded with dopamine, a feel-good hormone that promotes feelings of pleasure and relaxation. The more you drink alcohol, the more difficult it will be to achieve the same effect, so you’ll end up upping your consumption, leading to addiction.

Some other contributing factors include:

  • Religion – Those who grow up with stringent religious rules around alcohol can sometimes turn to what was once so suppressed and ridiculed in their childhood.
  • Social groups – Those who interact in social settings where excessive drinking is encouraged are more likely to develop an addiction than those who don’t. 
  • Culture – Similar to religion, if a particular culture shames those who drink alcohol, those with actual addictions might find it difficult to speak out and get the help they need to recover.
  • Age – Those who start drinking alcohol at an earlier age are more likely to develop an addiction later in life. 
  • Employment – It might sound strange, but specific careers can impact whether someone develops alcohol addiction or not. Those in high-stress jobs, like banking or the military, are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who don’t.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction

It’s not always easy to notice the signs of an alcohol use disorder, especially if you don’t think you have a problem. Though there are lots of different drinking levels, there are a few common signs to look out for, including:

  • A lack of interest in hobbies or things you once found enjoyable
  • Isolating yourself from friends and family to pursue drinking
  • An inability to stop drinking or to control your consumption (obsessive alcohol abuse)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit, such as nausea, vomiting, tremors, chills, and insomnia.
  • Increased depressive symptoms and poor mental health
  • The onset of new psychiatric or anxiety disorders
  • A need to drink more to get the same effect

Though alcohol disorder is chronic, it can be treated at an alcohol rehab clinic. These facilities are designed to help you combat your addiction, equipping you with the tools and resources needed to make a change and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain and Impact Mental Disorders?

Alcohol affects brain function by slowing down neurotransmitters, causing delayed responses, and releasing dopamine into our system. This makes it easy to develop an addiction and is one of the reasons that people with substance use disorder often experience mental health disorders.

Once you develop a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, quitting cold turkey can bring on depressive symptoms and make you feel more anxious about everyday life.

Sustained alcohol abuse essentially disrupts your brain’s pathways, affecting how you process and take in information. This might be subtle at first, but it becomes more noticeable over time and can even lead to mental illness and anxiety disorders.

Severe alcohol abuse can also have a long-lasting impact on your brain, resulting in shrinkage (losing gray matter and cells in your brain), cognitive dysfunction, and damaged neurotransmitters. 

Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

You might not have thought it, but alcoholism is a recognized mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association first identified alcoholism as a mental health disorder in 1980, after previously labeling it a personality disorder years earlier.

As a chronic disease, alcohol abuse impacts the brain’s functions, affecting its reward, memory, and processing abilities. The whole reason people drink alcohol is for the effect it has on the brain; it releases dopamine and slows neutrons. Once alcohol dependency develops, you may start to chase after this feel-good feeling to trigger reward pathways in your brain (a psychological behavior directly caused by alcohol consumption).

If you’re a stranger to this news, you’re not alone. Most of us assume that mental health disorders are separate from addiction. Alcohol addiction is often recognized as the root cause of conditions like bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression – it’s rarely seen as a mental health condition in itself.

The Link Between Mental Health Disorders and Addiction

The link between mental illness and addiction is clear; half of all people who suffer from mental health disorders also battle substance abuse. Those who drink alcohol excessively, for example, might find that their existing mental health conditions worsen as a result, and they might even develop new mental illnesses. In contrast, those with a mental health disorder might find that they turn to alcohol to cope with their feelings. This is nothing new, though. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, mental health and addiction have always been linked.

These instances are often referred to as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnoses. It’s extremely common, and both sides of the coin often get progressively worse without treatment. Physiatric disorders can be made worse by alcohol abuse. Likewise, psychiatric disorders can worsen alcohol abuse – it’s a constant battle, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be treated.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

There are typically four stages to alcohol addiction treatment: medical evaluation, detox, withdrawal and medication, and aftercare. During the initial assessment, a doctor will go over your medical history – this will be used to create a treatment and detox plan that’s tailored to your needs.

You’ll then be gradually weaned off alcohol with medical detox, a process that triggers alcohol withdrawal. During this stage, you’ll experience a few uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. This is natural and is simply your body’s reaction to coming off drugs.

All substance abuse treatment programs will provide you with the support and care you need to get through this challenging period, and you’ll be given medication to help relieve side effects. Not only will this ease your mental health, but it will also make it easier to sleep and focus on your recovery journey.

If you have a mental disorder, dual diagnosis treatment options are available. These programs focus on treating the root cause of your addiction (mental illness) before combating your physical dependence on alcohol. Since alcohol addiction is recognized as a mental illness, it’s technically free to receive treatment. Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, all health insurance providers are expected to cover alcohol treatment costs.

Begin Your Recovery Journey Today

At Ebb Tide Recovery, we’re dedicated to helping you transform your life. Our caring and compassionate team are with you every step of the way, guiding you through your recovery journey to lifelong sobriety.

We treat a range of substance abuse disorders, offering inpatient and outpatient programs tailored to your needs. We believe mental health is the root of addiction, so we will always treat co-occurring conditions through dual diagnosis. 

Are you ready to make a change? If so, our team is here to answer any questions you might have and guide you through the admissions process. Get in touch with us at 561-508-8330.

Comments are closed.