Alcoholism and mental health can seem like a complicated topic. The reason for this is that, in someone suffering from alcoholism, it is difficult to determine cause and effect. Did a mental illness lead to the person’s alcoholism? Did the person’s alcoholism lead to a mental illness? Will the symptoms of mental illness disappear when the person stops drinking?
But, with recent studies indicating that even casual drinking is linked to poorer mental health, the link between alcoholism and mental illness is well-established. We just need to disentangle the various threads to see why this is so, and what can be done about it.
Alcoholism and mental illness: in parallel
Some individuals suffer from both alcoholism and mental illness, with neither having caused or triggered the other. For example, a person who sometimes suffers from depression might start drinking for totally external reasons. They may simply drink for fun when they go out with friends, or use alcohol for some “dutch courage” at a club. In other words, their alcoholism starts independently of their mental illness.
However, someone suffering from both alcoholism and mental illness will see both aspects worsen on account of each other. The symptoms of mental illness will become more severe on account of the alcohol, which will lead the person to drink more, becoming trapped in a vicious circle.
Alcoholism leading to mental illness
Alternatively, alcoholism can directly cause or trigger mental illness. A person who has strong coping mechanisms and a solid sense of self will see those eroding as they become more and more dependent on alcohol. They may previously have had a healthy approach to difficult emotions and trying times. However, alcohol can seem like an easier, more immediate tool for dealing with difficulties. While alcohol is very dysfunctional as a coping mechanism, it becomes the person’s go-to, and their healthy skills atrophy.
It is not just the erosion of coping skills that leads to or triggers mental illness. Alcohol is in fact a depressant. It can relax and disinhibit you, but at the same time makes you vulnerable to feelings of lowness. It disrupts your thinking. It causes sleep problems. All-in-all, it plays havoc with your sense of balance.
Mental illness leading to alcoholism
But mental illness can also be a trigger or cause of alcoholism. Someone suffering from social anxiety may start drinking to feel disinhibition. Someone suffering from depression may drink to numb out the painful feelings. OCD in particular is connected to alcoholism, as sufferers search for ways to quiet their obsessive thinking.
Alcohol may help with the symptoms of mental illness temporarily. However, consequences soon set in, with lower lows than before, poor quality of sleep, and a range of personal problems. The person ends up drinking more to try and deal with their worsening situation, and their alcoholism becomes worse.
Which mental illnesses are particularly linked to alcoholism?
While alcoholism can lead to or complicate many mental illnesses, some are more closely linked to addiction than others.
- Depression: Individuals suffering from depression may start drinking to try to feel good again. It may temporarily work but, since alcohol is a depressant itself, it ultimately worsens the problem.
- Bipolar disorder: Individuals going through a manic episode may reach for alcohol to help slow down their racing minds or to help them sleep. They may start using it to turn off when their illness is causing them to feel “on” all the time.
- OCD: Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often start using alcohol to clear their mind of obsessive thoughts. The slowness or confusion of being inebriated may seem like temporary relief from the relentlessness of their cognitive reality.
- PTSD: Since post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused in part by a continued stress response even when the stressor is no longer present, alcohol can at first temporarily help relax a person’s body and mind, and inhibit their memories. Eventually, it begins to worsen the symptoms instead of relieving them.
- Anxiety disorders: People suffering from anxiety may feel temporarily relieved from their worries when they are inebriated. This is especially common for those suffering from social anxiety disorders. In the long run, the consequences of alcoholism lead to cause for more severe anxiety.
When you or a loved one receives help for alcoholism, a psychiatrist will evaluate whether you have a dual-diagnosis. They test for various mental illnesses and try to establish how the illnesses are linked.
Regardless of whether there is a causal relationship between your alcoholism and mental health, one cannot be treated in isolation. Without treating your alcoholism, your mental health will only worsen. Without treating your mental health, any sobriety will be short-lived.
If you or a loved one are suffering from mental illness, be aware that there is an increased risk of alcoholism and other substance use disorders. Watch out for symptoms of excessive drinking or alcohol dependence.
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