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Alcoholism and Mental Illness: Is There a Connection?

8 minute read

Addiction is complicated. There are many risk factors and components to consider, but none more so than mental illness. According to research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, around 1 in 5 (20%) of U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. There is a close connection between alcoholism and mental illness for some people.

Many choose to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but this opens the door for real problems with substance abuse and mental illness as the two can perpetuate each other into a vicious cycle. 

Alcoholism is often misused by people struggling with mental health disorders. As you use alcohol over time, it can change your brain on a chemical level. This can worsen mental health disorder symptoms, creating a cycle that’s tough to break from.

Getting help from a certified mental health and addiction rehab center like Footprints to Recovery is the best course of action if you need help with alcohol abuse and mental illness. Our team of clinicians are skilled and experienced in assisting clients on their journeys to a brighter future.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic and progressive condition in which you are unable to control or stop drinking despite negative consequences. It is considered a substance use disorder and is marked by both physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.

Alcohol abuse is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1700s, physicians and researchers have sounded the alarm of alcohol addiction, but it wasn’t until 1954 that alcoholism was classified as a disease by the New York City Medical Society on Alcohol.  Before the 1950s, many saw alcoholism as a weakness or flaw in character rather than a diagnosable and treatable disease.

Most people in the United States end up trying alcohol at least once. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 78% of Americans age 12 and over tried alcohol at some point in their life. Alcohol seems to be everywhere, and it’s legal for anyone over the age of 21, which contributes to such high usage rates.

Why Is Alcoholism Dangerous?

Alcoholism poses many dangers to your physical health, mental well-being, and functioning. Here are some of the potential dangers associated with alcoholism:

Physical Health Problems

Alcoholism can lead to a variety of health issues. These include:

  • Liver diseases (such as cirrhosis and hepatitis)
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cardiovascular problems (such as high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease)
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Compromised immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers
  • Neurological damage

Mental Health Disorders

Alcoholism is often associated with or can contribute to the development of mental health disorders. These include depression, anxiety disorders, and an increased risk of suicide. Alcohol can disrupt the brain’s chemistry and exacerbate underlying mental health conditions.

Alcohol is dangerous for people with mental health disorders as it can make symptoms worse. In turn, that can cause someone to use more alcohol, as the symptoms of their mental illness may feel better in the short-term after consuming alcohol. But as they use more and more to combat symptoms of mental illness, alcohol use can develop into a serious addiction problem. This creates a vicious cycle of symptoms and alcohol abuse that can be difficult to break free from.

Accidents and Injuries

Alcohol impairs judgment, coordination, and reaction time. This increases the risk of accidents and injuries. Drunk driving accidents, falls, burns, and other unintentional injuries are common consequences of alcoholism.

Relationship and Family Problems

Alcoholism can put a strain on relationships. This can lead to conflicts, breakdowns in communication, domestic violence, and the erosion of trust. Family members may experience emotional distress and develop psychological issues because of living with a person struggling with alcoholism.

Work and Financial Issues

Alcoholism can impact work performance and attendance. This can lead to job loss, financial instability, and a decline in career prospects. You may face legal problems, including DUI charges or other alcohol-related offenses.

Increased Risky Behaviors

Alcohol impairs judgment and inhibitions. This makes it more likely that you will engage in risky behaviors like:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Substance abuse
  • Criminal activities
  • Involvement in dangerous situations

Dependence and Withdrawal

Alcoholism leads to physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. This means you experience withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to quit or reduce your alcohol consumption. Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe and life-threatening complications.

alcoholism and mental illness

What Is Mental Illness?

Mental illness, also known as having a mental health disorder, is a wide range of conditions that affect your thinking, feeling, moods, behaviors, and mental well-being. Mental illnesses can impact your thoughts, emotions, perception, and functioning. They are complex and can have several causes, including:

  • Genetic factors
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Environmental stressors
  • A combination of biological, psychological, and social factors

Some of the most common mental health disorders include:

The symptoms and severity of mental illnesses can vary from mild to severe. They may include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Mood swings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
alcoholism and mental illness

Alcoholism and Mental Illness: What’s the Connection?

There is a strong connection between alcoholism and mental illness, and the two often coexist or influence each other. When both issues are present at the same time, it’s known as co-occurring disorders. This comorbidity can make diagnosis, treatment, and recovery processes harder for people who have both alcoholism and mental health disorders.

Alcoholism itself is considered a mental health issue. The American Psychiatric Association identified substance use disorders as primary mental health conditions in 1980. This is because substance abuse involves the brain and its functioning. It is classified as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This is the standard reference used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions.

The most obvious connection between mental illness and alcohol is how it’s used to self-medicate. Many people with mental illnesses may turn to alcohol to help themselves feel better and reduce symptoms. Alcohol can provide short-term relief from anxiety and depression symptoms and intrusive thoughts, but self-medication can lead to a harmful cycle, as alcohol can worsen mental health symptoms over time.

Treating Alcoholism and Mental Health

Addressing both alcoholism and mental health disorders at the same time is crucial for effective treatment. Only treating one issue leaves the door open for the other to continue causing problems. Getting sober won’t matter if mental health issues like depression or anxiety are still causing the urge to drink.

Integrated treatment approaches, including dual diagnosis treatment programs, can provide comprehensive care that addresses the interplay between the two conditions. This may involve a combination of therapy, medications, support groups, and lifestyle changes tailored to your specific needs.

Here are some treatments and therapies used for co-occurring alcoholism and mental illness:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach for treating both alcoholism and mental illness. It focuses on identifying and modifying unhealthy thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that contribute to these conditions. CBT helps you identify the specific triggers or situations that lead to alcohol use for you or that make your mental health symptoms worse. It also helps uncover automatic negative thoughts and beliefs that lead you to self-destructive behaviors or emotional distress.

CBT teaches practical coping skills to manage cravings, stress, and difficult emotions. This may involve learning relaxation techniques, problem-solving skills, assertiveness training, and strategies to prevent relapse.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy is another therapeutic approach that can benefit people struggling with alcoholism and mental illness. It is proven effective in treating emotional dysregulation and self-destructive behaviors.

DBT teaches you skills to identify, understand, and regulate your emotions. It can give you strategies to manage your emotions without resorting to self-destructive behaviors, like drinking alcohol. It teaches techniques to self-soothe, distract yourself, and ride out intense emotions until they pass.

alcoholism and mental illness

Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment at Footprints to Recovery

Footprints to Recovery offers a full continuum of addiction and mental health treatment programs that include individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy using the techniques above and others. Our clinical team is experienced and skilled in providing exceptional care to everyone in need. Treatment programs are evidence-based and integrate holistic practices in recovery. Our levels of care offer a flexible, personalized approach to treatment as you take steps to better your life.

Our levels of care for alcoholism and mental illness include:

  • Medical detox: Making it through detox is a key step in alcohol recovery and mental illness treatment. Detox and alcohol withdrawal are easier to get through when you have a team of medical professionals at your side. Footprints to Recovery offers 24/7 care and supervision during the detox process to ensure your comfort and safety.
  • Inpatient treatment: Inpatient, or residential treatment, involves living full-time at our rehab center while you undergo alcohol treatment. The structure of treatment allows you to focus your entire attention on getting sober and overcoming mental health issues. Our team of clinicians create a personalized treatment plan that best suits your needs. An integrated approach to treatment offers both evidence-based and holistic recovery practices.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP): A PHP may be right for you if you need structured addiction and mental health treatment without 24-hour monitoring. It combines elements of inpatient and outpatient treatment to ease your transition back to normal life. PHP treatment happens daily at the rehab facility for about six hours. Then you go home or to a sober living residence.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): An IOP is another step down in treatment intensity. It offers even more time outside of treatment for you to apply the skills you’ve learned in recovery. An IOP involves building on the skills and coping mechanisms taught in recovery so you can remain sober after completing alcohol treatment and better manage your mental health symptoms.
  • Outpatient rehab: In outpatient treatment you don’t check into a treatment facility. It’s considered a step down from intensive outpatient treatment. This level of care involves building on all the tools and coping skills learned throughout each level of care. This ensures you have what you need to remain sober and keep your mental health on an even keel after completing rehab.

Footprints to Recovery treatment center can help you overcome alcoholism and mental illness. Our individualized addiction treatment programs are tailored to your needs. Not sure how to pay for treatment? Our insurance verification team can help you understand what’s available under your policy. If you don’t have insurance, our admissions coordinators will let you know about your payment options. Finances should never prevent someone from getting the help they need. Contact us today and learn more about better mental health and recovery from alcoholism.


  1. https://journalofethics.ama…
Evan Gove
Jenna Richer
Author Evan Gove
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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