Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

therapist explaining 6 ways drug addiction affects the family

The term mental illness refers to conditions that prevent individuals from interacting normally with their environment and other people. When we pose the question: is alcoholism considered a mental illness? The answer is yes, it can be considered one. Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is also referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). 

The classification of alcoholism as a diagnosable mental illness doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope for a life free from alcohol abuse and its related symptoms. Instead, this classification means that research around it has produced treatment options, standards of care, and destigmatizing understanding. To better understand the links between alcoholism and mental illness, we answered a few common questions regarding the two. 

Is Being an Alcoholic a Mental Health-Related Issue?

Similar to widely-known mental health disorders, alcoholism makes an appearance in the 5th and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The conditions considered to be mental illnesses range from diagnoses such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Borderline personality disorder

Alcoholism isn’t only a mental health issue. This disorder also takes a toll on physical health and is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be among the top four preventable causes of chronic illness, alongside tobacco use, lack of physical activity, and poor nutrition. The ties between alcoholism and mental illness are enforced by the many psychological, biological, and social components involved with AUD cases. 

Is Alcoholism a Chronic Disease?

Not only is alcoholism classified as a mental health issue it is also considered a disease. Fitting the criteria required by disease theory, alcoholism includes the following qualifying characteristics:

  • Biological in nature with a predictable timeline of both development and recovery
  • There are observable signs and commonly shared symptoms among sufferers.
  • It does not go away or heal on its own without intervention. 
  • A progressive illness that could get worse over time.
  • If left untreated, it can be fatal.

Is alcoholism a chronic disease, though? Chronic diseases are conditions that require ongoing medical attention, limit daily activities, and subside for a year or longer. Due to AUD’s progressive nature that requires treatment, and how it interferes with the user’s daily life, the answer to this question is yes. 

Alcoholism is considered a disease that progresses in three stages, starting with problematic drinking and ending in obsessive alcohol abuse. 

Problematic Drinking

The first stage of AUD begins with problematic drinking. In this stage, the physical and psychological—otherwise known as chemical—dependence begins. Drinking for pleasure or socially ends long before this stage. When the user isn’t drinking, withdrawal begins to manifest. This leads to more frequent alcohol abuse to abate the uncomfortable symptoms associated with withdrawing from a substance. 

This early stage can be difficult to recognize as many people can conceal their problematic drinking. As AUD progresses, though, a decline in performance at school or work, a decline in physical health, and other serious issues begin to become apparent. 

Severe Alcohol Abuse

Severe alcohol abuse marks the second stage of AUD. The issues that began in the problematic drinking stage evolve in this stage to further affect the user’s life, relationships, and overall health. 

It is in this stage that alcoholism and mental illness-related issues become more apparent as the user’s dependence on alcohol grows. Uncontrollable alcohol cravings lead to (or worsen) mental health issues, in this stage, such as irritability, aggression, depression, and anxiety.

Obsessive Alcohol Abuse

The third and final stage of AUD is the obsessive alcohol abuse phase. In this stage, the user has likely been drinking heavily for years and is experiencing the onset of (or is a high risk for) other chronic conditions such as:

  • Diseases of the liver (such as cirrhosis)
  • Heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke
  • Various types of cancer (like that of the esophagus, colon, or liver)

A compulsive need to consume alcohol despite the physical, psychological, and social ramifications characterize this end-stage. In many cases, obsessive alcohol abusers are also more often under the influence of alcohol than not.

How Does Alcohol Affect Brain Chemistry?

It is a largely accepted fact that addiction (whether to alcohol or other substances) affects brain chemistry. The way that the brain normally functions is altered to the point where someone suffering from AUD is unable to control their drinking. 

The changes in brain chemistry are linked to the brain’s “reward” system and how alcohol consumption influences the production of the brain’s “feel-good” chemical, dopamine. When someone does something that they find pleasurable, such as eating delicious food or hearing a song they love, dopamine is produced in the brain. 

The production of this chemical often reinforces behaviors, both healthy and unhealthy. If the result of a particular behavior is a rush of dopamine, the person exhibiting the behavior is likely to repeat it to feel that rush. With AUD the brain loses the ability to distinguish between dopamine rewards for healthy behavior and rewards for drug or alcohol use, leading to increased substance abuse

Is Alcoholism Linked to Other Mental Illnesses?

Many people who are diagnosed with AUD are dually diagnosed with another mental health disorder, further connecting alcoholism and mental illness. Alcohol abuse can begin as a maladaptive coping mechanism for the untreated symptoms of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. Rather than abating the symptoms of an existing disorder long-term, AUD usually creates more mental health-related issues as it progresses. 

The co-occurring mental health issues can lead to a cycle in which the user is drinking to alleviate symptoms of a disorder (for example, depression). At the same time, excessive alcohol use and abuse are likely making the symptoms of depression worse for the alcoholic. 

Not only is alcoholism considered a mental illness that can exist in sync with other mental illnesses, but it may also lead to the development of a mental illness. Alcohol-induced depression, self-harm, suicide, and psychosis, are linked with alcohol abuse, especially when used in combination with other substances

Is Alcoholism Curable?

Addiction is a disease, but like many diseases, alcoholism isn’t curable. It is treatable and manageable long-term, though. For those who are experiencing an addiction to alcohol, a future free of alcohol dependence exists. 

Addiction isn’t one size fits all; despite commonalities, everyone experiences addiction differently. At Lifetime Recovery, we offer a range of services to help those who are suffering from AUD. Our services include inpatient, outpatient, medication-assisted treatment programs, and partial hospitalization programs. Contact us today to find the treatment option that is best suited to your or a loved one’s needs. 

Treating mental health and trauma

Our behavioral health and substance abuse treatment experts also treat co-occurring disorders/dual diagnoses (including trauma), and we are one of the few alcohol and drug rehab centers offering gambling addiction treatment.