Like other types of addictions, alcoholism – also referred to as alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction – is a disease that requires professional care. And just like many other diseases, alcoholism can co-occur with other conditions and contribute to the development of other conditions, as well. Due to the undeniable link between alcohol and mental illness, today we pose the question: is alcoholism a mental illness? And if so, what does this mean for those with the disorder?
What Is a Mental Illness?
Also referred to as a mental health disorder or psychological disorder, a mental illness is a health condition marked by changes in emotion, thinking, behavior, or a combination of these. Mental illnesses are often associated with distress and/or problems functioning in society, at work, and with family. Mental health disorders are unfortunately common. In a given year, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, with 4.1% of these being cases of serious mental illness.1
Mental health involves effective functioning in daily activities, resulting in productive activities, healthy relationships, and an ability to adapt to and cope with change and adversity. On the other hand, mental illness can make functioning in a person’s day-to-day nearly impossible.
Some common examples of mental illness include:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Eating Disorders
Mental health is the foundation for emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience, hope, and self-esteem. It’s also key to sustaining healthy relationships, personal well-being, and contributing to society. With that said, while anyone can develop a mental illness, certain people are more likely to develop one.
People who are exposed to adverse circumstances like poverty, violence, disability, and inequality are at a higher risk of struggling with a mental health disorder. Other risk factors include genetics, environment, and brain structure or function. If you notice that a loved one is struggling with their mental health, the specialists at our rehab in Massachusetts can conduct a clinical assessment to determine the most effective course of treatment.
Is Alcohol Use Disorder a Mental Illness?
Yes, alcoholism is a mental illness. Specifically, alcoholism or alcohol use disorder is defined as a chronic disease characterized by uncontrollable drinking and preoccupation with alcohol. People with this disorder struggle with the inability to control their drinking due to both a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.
Individuals with this disorder will, therefore, be unable to control their drinking, continue to use alcohol even when it causes problems, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit cold turkey or suddenly decrease their drinking amount.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) classifies alcoholism as a mental illness, referring to it specifically as alcohol use disorder (AUD). The disorder is also categorized into mild, moderate, and severe sub-classifications.
The alcohol use disorder DSM-5 criteria are as follows:2
In the past year, have you:
- Experienced times when you ended up drinking more, or for longer, than you intended?
- Wanted to cut down or stop drinking or tried to but couldn’t more than once?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or were you often sick or getting over other aftereffects?
- Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
- Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family, caused job troubles, or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities, many of which were important or interesting to you or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious, added to another health problem, or after you had a memory blackout?
- Needed to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms? These include trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure, or have you sensed things that were not there?
The severity of an alcohol use disorder is defined according to the number of symptoms the individual has experienced:2
- Mild: The presence of 2 to 3 symptoms
- Moderate: The presence of 4 to 5 symptoms
- Severe: The presence of 6 or more symptoms
Individuals who meet the criteria for AUD should seek out professional care immediately, starting with alcohol detox. Our Massachusetts rehab offers detoxification services for alcoholism to provide patients with a safe, clean, and medically-managed environment where they can recover from withdrawals. We can help you or a loved one get started.
Can Alcohol Cause Mental Illness?
Not only is alcoholism a mental illness, but abusing alcohol can also contribute to mental illness. The brain relies on a balance of chemicals called neurotransmitters, including GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it acts on the brain to reduce certain functions, causing impaired judgment, calmness, relaxation, and sedation.
Long-term or chronic alcohol abuse can cause mental illness because of its impact on the brain’s balance of neurotransmitters. When a person drinks heavy amounts of alcohol for long periods, the brain becomes accustomed to the substance’s depressant effects. This chemical shift can make it difficult for the brain to regulate itself ever again, which can contribute to the development of mental illness and, ultimately, the occurrence of mental illness with alcoholism.
Alcohol has been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, psychosis, self-harm, and even suicide. This association is further displayed by these alcohol and mental health statistics:3
- Mood disturbances affect upward of 80% of alcoholics at some point in their drinking careers.
- Approximately 30% to 40% of alcoholics experience a comorbid depressive disorder.
- Bipolar disorder is the second most common disorder associated with alcoholism.
- Among manic patients (those with bipolar disorder), 50% to 60% abuse or become dependent on alcohol or other drugs at some point in their lives.
- Alcoholic men are 4 to 8 times more likely, and alcoholic women are 12 to 17 times more likely, to have a comorbid antisocial personality disorder.
- Approximately 15% to 20% of alcoholic men and 10% of alcoholic women have a comorbid antisocial personality disorder.
The mental effects of alcohol are founded on the substance’s impact on chemical balance, particularly the functioning of GABA. Alcohol activates GABA release in the brain, contributing to sedation, impairment, and other changes that can lead to addiction as well as mental health problems.
Our Massachusetts Alcohol Rehab
Considering the various physical and mental health effects of alcohol abuse, there’s no time like the present to seek professional treatment. Our Clearbrook rehab offers alcohol treatment in Massachusetts that incorporates medical detox, inpatient care, therapy, and aftercare services to support long-term recovery.
For more information about our Massachusetts inpatient drug rehab, call Clearbrook Treatment Centers today at 570-536-9621 or send us your contact information, and an admission specialist will reach out to you.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA) – What Is Mental Illness?
- NIH – Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5
- NIH – Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders