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What is the Connection Between Mental Illness and Alcoholism?

By B. Schreiber
Updated May 17, 2024
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The connection between mental illness and alcoholism is complex and appears to go both ways. That is, people with mental illness are more disposed to alcoholism, and people with alcoholism are at greater risk for mental illness. This may be because the two conditions have predisposing factors in common, such as genetics or life experiences. On the other hand, people with existing mental illness problems may attempt to medicate themselves with alcohol. A relationship between mental illness and alcoholism appears between a number of disorders, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Depression is one condition that appears to demonstrate a link between mental illness and alcoholism. Depressed people are nearly twice as likely to be alcoholics as non-depressed people. Alcohol has been shown to not only lower inhibitions, but also overall self-awareness. This may reduce the emotional pain associated with depression. While alcohol might reduce the feeling of depression in the short term, it could also contribute to depression by causing significant legal, financial, and relationship problems.

People with anxiety disorders are one and a half times more likely to be alcohol-dependent than the general population, another connection between mental illness and alcoholism. These people may be drinking to relax or escape painful mental states, similar to some depressed drinkers. These types of possible self-medication may be related to psychological findings that someone's expectations of alcohol use can greatly affect the experience of intoxication. On the other hand, alcohol abuse can cause significant stress on the body and mind, which might contribute to anxiety disorders. States of anxiety are also a common feature of alcohol withdrawal in people who are dependent.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause a number of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and phobias. PTSD is likeliest to occur in people who are survivors of violence, abuse, or other severe stress. As with other mental health conditions, alcohol abuse in people with PTSD is likely to make treatment less effective.

Alcohol dependence among people with other disorders shows there isn't one clear link between mental illness and alcoholism. People with schizophrenia are three times more likely to drink heavily than those who don't have the disorder. People with anti-social behavior disorder, which includes a history of disregard for others, are twice as likely to drink as those who are unaffected. Social anxiety disorder also makes alcohol dependence more likely.

Some features of alcohol withdrawal can mimic mental health disorders. Anxiety and panic disorder as well as hallucinations are sometimes symptoms of withdrawal. While these symptoms usually clear up within a week of abstaining from alcohol, anxiety or mood swings could persist for months.

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