What Is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Mental Illness?
Alcohol is a mind-altering drug. As such, alcohol changes the chemistry of your brain and impacts your mental health. When you drink alcohol, the drug sedates your central nervous system by altering the levels of the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate in your brain. In moderation, this effect will cause you to feel relaxed and disinhibited. In higher volumes, the effects of alcohol will likely impair your judgment, memory, and coordination.
Almost 30% of Americans live with at least one diagnosed mental disorder, a type of medical condition which arises from physical imbalances or abnormalities in the brain. The symptoms of mental disorders vary greatly, but they generally affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, emotions, and personality. Mental disorders often cause a person significant distress and sometimes prevent a person from functioning normally in society.
Unfortunately, alcohol addiction may co-occur with a mental health disorder. In fact, there is a general correlation between substance abuse and mental illness. In cases of dual-diagnosis, where a person simultaneously has a mental illness and an alcohol addiction, the two disorders reinforce each other. However, alcohol addiction is not necessarily the cause or the result of mental illness. Rather, both could arise from a common set of factors, such as genetics and family history.
How Can Alcohol Affect a Mental Health Disorder?
If you have a mental health disorder, alcohol may appear to be an easy way to manage your emotions. Of course, alcohol is never a substitute for professional mental health care. Alcohol actually worsens mental illness, both by exacerbating existing symptoms and burdening the brain with alcohol dependence. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are three relatively common mental health disorders. Alcohol interacts adversely with all of them.
Alcohol and Depression
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in life. Alcohol addiction and depression are a regrettably prevalent combination. About one-third of people who struggle with depression also have an alcohol use disorder, and adolescents with diagnosed depression are more likely to drink heavily later in life.
Alcohol only ever deepens depression, even if drinking temporarily lifts a person’s spirits. The reason for this is biological. Alcohol forces the brain to produce more of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for combating depression, since low levels of serotonin correlate to stronger depression symptoms. Over time, the brain will develop tolerance for alcohol and require more of it to release serotonin. As a result, a heavy drinker will have to drink more alcohol to maintain their serotonin levels, so that without alcohol, their brain produces less of the neurotransmitter. This outcome causes a person with depression to depend on alcohol more desperately than ever before to feel better. In this way, alcohol with depression opens the door to alcohol addiction and prolongs, rather the alleviates, hopelessness and despair.
Alcohol and Anxiety
An anxiety disorder causes intense and debilitating fear of ordinary life. In some ways, alcohol is similar to some medications for anxiety disorder. Like an anti-anxiety pill, alcohol sedates and relaxes the brain, so some people “self-medicate” anxiety by drinking. In the long-term, alcohol is the worst solution for anxiety. Alcohol may relieve anxiety temporarily, but once the effects of alcohol dissipate, a person with anxiety will return to feeling anxious, but now with the additional burdens of alcohol abuse, such as intoxication, hangovers, and memory loss. Heavy drinking over the course of many years may also result in chronic health problems, such as obesity or heart disease. A healthy body is the best vessel for a healthy, balanced mind.
Furthermore, drinking to alleviate a social anxiety disorder only causes or reinforces alcohol dependence. If a person cannot cope with anxiety without alcohol, they will be unable to go to work or socialize without drinking first.
Alcohol and Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder causes a person to alternate between states of depression and mania. About 45% of people who suffer from bipolar disorder also have an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol addiction is the substance use disorder with which people with bipolar disorder most often struggle. Nevertheless, alcohol aggravates bipolar disorder by destabilizing a person’s emotions even more.
For example, the sedative effects of alcohol can prolong bipolar depression, while the euphoric effects of alcohol might amplify bipolar mania. Alcoholism and bipolar disorder so commonly co-occur because a person may be unable to control their drinking during mania and might consistently self-medicate their depression by drinking. Ultimately, alcohol will intensify any bipolar episode.
Many treatment centers for alcohol addiction now offer treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders. Likewise, many mental health facilities work with patients to address alcohol abuse. Since alcohol abuse and mental illness tend to sustain and amplify each other, treatment for one often requires treatment for both. Fortunately, anyone can access dual-diagnosis treatment at any of the hundreds of qualified, professional rehab facilities throughout the country which help people achieve freedom from a variety of disorders every day. Dual-diagnosis treatment will typically involve detox from alcohol, therapy in an inpatient or outpatient setting, participation in support groups, and medication.
Get Help Today for Alcohol Addiction
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction and a diagnosed mental health disorder, today is the day to take the first step to solving the problem. To learn more about alcohol addiction rehab options, please contact a dedicated treatment provider. They can help answer any rehab-related questions and calls are completely free of charge.
Author: Ginni Correa | Last Edited: June 14, 2021