Can Alcohol Cause Mental Disorders?

Alcohol has maintained a strong foothold in our society over the ages because of its benefits as a social lubricant. When consumed in moderate amounts, the relaxing properties associated with alcohol consumption can boost people’s emotions and enhance social bonding.

While the majority of the world’s population enjoy alcohol consumption without issue, specific individuals may develop a severe alcohol-related problem: alcohol use disorder (AUD). Such individuals imbibe alcohol even when drinking causes negative consequences.

It’s critical to note that the real-world impact of AUD extends far beyond the addicts themselves: there’s also the destruction it causes on the society as a whole. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older are diagnosed with AUD. Worryingly, that’s just statistics from the United States. Globally, AUD is the first leading risk factor for premature death for people between the ages of 15 and 49.


Alcohol Changes Your Brain

 If you’ve consumed alcohol before, you’d be familiar with the host of cognitive changes it brings about: loss of inhibitions, confused thinking, and poor decision-making. You might also have noticed slurred speech and poor limb coordination. But you drink because alcohol also changes your mood for the better. Indeed — what’s the deal with all that? Well, all these familiar signs of intoxication occur because of the way alcohol affects the brain.

You see: alcohol acts on the receptor sites for neurotransmitters — chemical messengers known as GABA, glutamate, and dopamine, that help transmit signals from one brain cell to another. Alcohol’s activity on the GABA and glutamate sites causes the physiological effects of drinking (slowing down of speech and movement). Now, the pleasurable feelings you experience are due to alcohol’s stimulatory activity on the dopamine site in your brain’s reward center.


Mental Health Issues and AUD

It is found that many diagnosed with AUD also struggle with a co-occurring mental health condition — a case of dual diagnosis. I hear you asking, “What is dual diagnosis?” Dual diagnosis (Addiction Resource provide more details) is simply the term used when a person has both a mood disorder — such as depression or bipolar disorder — and a problem with alcohol or drugs. These are two separate illnesses that are believed to be linked.

But — how are they linked?

Bi-directionally, it seems. AUD and mood disorders can contribute to each other. A pre-existing mental issue is more likely to lead to alcohol abuse for many people because the mood-enhancing effects of the drink can help mask the symptoms and emotional reactions of a mood disorder. On the contrary, people who struggle with AUD can also trigger a mental illness.

Specifically, here are three of the most common mental health conditions associated with AUD:


Depression (major depressive disorder) is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Statistics show that nearly one-fifth of people suffering from depression also exhibit signs of alcohol abuse.

Typically, AUD appears after depression is diagnosed — people suffering from depression are likely to begin drinking in attempts of experiencing happiness. Unfortunately, the mood-boosting effects of alcohol are not long-lasting.

Also, alcohol, as a depressant, can actually increase suicidal thoughts in individuals and cause depression.


Anxiety Disorder

It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious during stressful periods. But those suffering from anxiety disorders experience abnormal levels of anxiety daily. In fact, they feel anxious most days and often cannot recollect the last time they felt relaxed.

Many people struggling with anxiety disorders turn to alcohol: as mentioned earlier, the substance acts on the GABA receptors in the brain and inhibits specific communications between brain cells. As a result, these individuals can relax and take a break from their anxious thoughts. Over time, their dependence on alcohol can lead to AUD.

Unsurprisingly, AUD can also pave the way for anxiety disorders: many who attempt to quit drinking can experience panic and anxiety-related feelings as withdrawal symptoms.


Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition marked by alternating periods of mania (elevated mood) and depression. The constant cycling between extreme spectrums of mood can be quite disturbing, and people with undiagnosed bipolar disorder may attempt to self-medicate the symptoms. As a depressant, alcohol can be abused to tone down manic periods and alleviate sadness. Gradually, a dependence on alcohol may be established and lead to AUD.

AUD can also trigger bipolar disorder: researchers have noted that symptoms of the mental disorder appear when a person withdraws from alcohol dependence. It’s postulated that alcohol use and bipolar disorder affect the same brain chemicals. In fact, there’s likely to be a direct link between alcohol consumption and the rate of occurrence of manic and depressive episodes.


Dual Diagnosis Treatment

When an individual struggles with alcohol abuse and psychiatric conditions, special consideration will need to be made during the treatment for dual diagnosis to ensure that both disorders are adequately addressed and managed.

A well-planned, integrated dual diagnosis rehab program usually involves the following steps:  

1.   Medical detox

Alcohol is known to have harmful interactions with prescription medicine, especially psychiatric ones, so the first step carried out by a dual diagnosis treatment facility is often alcohol detox. A medical detox program provides around-the-clock support from a doctor for proper management of withdrawal symptoms.

2.   Medications

Medications, like naltrexone and Acamprosate, may be prescribed to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings to minimize the risk of relapse.

3.   Therapy and counseling

Once alcohol detox is complete, the individual will undergo therapy sessions. These sessions enable the person to understand the link between their abuse of alcohol and mental health. Also, counseling sessions teach them crucial relapse prevention strategies so they can stay substance-free for a lifetime.


Bottom Line

While either AUD or mental illness can be tough on a person, undergoing both conditions, concurrently, can be particularly troubling and often results in significantly poorer outcomes. The successful treatment of both disorders simultaneously requires the execution of a deliberate and integrated rehab program from a dual diagnosis treatment facility. Ultimately, this approach is the most effective way to achieve a sustainable recovery on all fronts.


About the Author:    John Adkins is a blogger and volunteer who deals with issues of mental health,  addiction, and life in recovery. He has overcome addiction in the past. Also, he works  with a foundation that helps drug addicts, so he has a clear understanding of their  problems.



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