Mental Illness and Alcohol Addiction

man with mental illness drinking alcoholIt is very common for a person to suffer from both a mental illness and alcohol or drug addiction at the same time. Studies find at least half of adults aged 18 and older with a serious mental disorder also have an alcohol or drug dependency. Research suggests many of those under age 18 also struggle with both mental illness and alcohol or drug addiction.

When an individual has both a mental illness and an alcohol addiction simultaneously, the clinical diagnosis is co-occurring disorder, comorbidity, or dual diagnosis. Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to diagnose, as one disorder may mask symptoms of the other.

Results of the 2018 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health found 9.2 million adults aged 18 and older had a co-occurring mental health disorder and alcohol or drug addiction. This is a significant increase from the 2015 survey, which reported co-occurring disorders in about 7.9 million adults.

Although any mental illness can co-occur with alcohol or drug addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says those with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and schizophrenia have the highest rate of comorbidity.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

People with an alcohol addiction typically cannot stop or control their drinking even in the face of negative consequences and may feel emotional distress or withdrawal symptoms when they are not using alcohol.

The term “addict” has carried unfair stigmatization for decades. Even though the American Medical Association (AMA) identified alcohol addiction as a chronic medical disease in 1956, alcohol addiction continues to be viewed by many as a weakness or moral failure.

The AMA updated its definition of alcoholism in 2018, stating it is, “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.“

Clinicians refer to alcohol addiction as alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD). While AUD refers only to alcohol addiction, SUD may refer to either a drug or alcohol addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse urges all people, including healthcare workers, to use the terms alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder rather than addiction, to avoid stigmatization.

Alcohol is a depressant, slowing mental and physical responses, and affecting mood, energy, coordination, concentration, and decision making. Those under the influence of alcohol are more likely to engage in risky or violent behavior and to exhibit suicidal ideation.

What is Mental Illness?

Just like alcohol use disorder, heart disease, or diabetes, mental illness is a chronic medical condition that is treatable. Those with a mental illness often experience changes in their emotions, thinking, or behavior, or a combination of these, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The APA describes mental illness as “associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

A person suffering from a mental illness may use alcohol to dull certain emotions, or to lift their mood. While this may provide temporary relief, it can make things worse as substance use continues.

The Relationship Between Alcohol Use and Mental Illness

People with a mental illness or alcohol use disorder often find it difficult to function responsibly in their daily lives. For those who suffer from both disorders, the problem is that much more complex. Those with either disease are statistically more likely to develop the other disease.

Many studies support the link between alcohol use disorder and mental disorders, especially between AUD and depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder. Research finds overuse of alcohol not only contributes to mood and other mental disorders but also creates a cycle of self-medication that is difficult to break.

Over time, continued, heavy use of alcohol triggers the brain to rewire pathways to its pleasure and reward center. Eventually, the user may be unable to achieve a sense of well-being without the use of alcohol. Similarly, a person with a mental illness who is using alcohol to mask negative emotions may come to rely on alcohol to feel “normal,” at least briefly.

Both alcohol use disorder and mental illness are chronic brain disorders and interact with brain pathways similarly.

  • The use of addictive substances prompts the pleasure center of the brain to release higher than normal surges of dopamine and serotonin, hormones that make the user “feel good,” thus encouraging them to repeat the experience.
  • Those with mood disorders like depression have lower than normal levels of dopamine and serotonin, which may contribute to feelings of sadness and the inability to feel pleasure. They may use alcohol, which spikes hormone levels, to experience pleasure and temporary relief from psychological pain.
  • Research finds brain deficits, genetics, or experience of trauma in early life may increase the risk for both mental illness and addiction.
  • The brain changes as young people develop and mature. During this stage, teens tend to exhibit risky, impulsive behavior, which studies find increases the risk of developing an addiction and mental disorder.

Help with Mental Illness and Alcohol Addiction

Most experts agree that the chance for long-term recovery increases when co-occurring disorders are treated simultaneously. Even in severe situations, recovery is possible with the right comprehensive treatment plan. Reach out to your physician, mental health professional, or addiction specialist for guidance.

At Midwest Recovery Centers, our compassionate staff specializes in treating prescription or illegal drug dependence, alcohol dependence, co-occurring disorders, and other addictive behaviors, while providing education, counseling, and support for families.

Contact Midwest Recovery Centers today to start your recovery.


Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., MAADC II
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.

Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Click or Call Today! 844-990-1578

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