There is a two-way relationship between alcohol consumption and mental disorders. Alcohol use is often used to cope with mental health issues but can also cause mental health issues to develop. This creates a vicious cycle where you drink alcohol to ease mental health symptoms, which causes your symptoms to worsen so that you drink more to cope, and the cycle continues. Those who experience mental illness and problems with alcohol use are said to have co-occurring disorders.
If you suspect that you or a loved one has a co-occurring disorder you should get professional help. Dual diagnosis is complex and therefore requires careful treatment. Those who have a dual diagnosis are at higher risk than those who have either illness alone.
Drinking Alcohol to Cope With Mental Health Problems
Your brain relies on maintaining chemical balance for you to experience good mental health. Alcohol is a depressant that mimics the activity of the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), in your central nervous system. This causes feelings of relaxation and increased confidence. These are the effects that people are looking for when they use alcohol to cope with mental health problems. Initially, alcohol will ease symptoms, however, with time it will only make them worse, particularly when alcohol addiction occurs.
Mental health disorders are a risk factor for the development of alcohol addiction or dependence. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM–5) combines alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence in DSM-4 into one single disorder, alcohol use disorder. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.5 million people had an alcohol use disorder in that year.
Your brain is good at responding to chemical changes and adapts when you are drinking alcohol frequently. Once dependence has occurred, this change is so extreme that quitting disrupts the new balance, causing you to experience extremely unpleasant, and sometimes even fatal, withdrawal symptoms. Dependence tends to develop gradually due to increasing alcohol consumption. Alcohol addiction is usually close behind. It is defined as a brain disorder in which you lose control over your alcohol use.
Drinking Can Lead to or Worsen Mental Health Problems
While alcohol may be used to ease mental health symptoms, in the long run it can worsen them and even cause mental health problems and physical symptoms. Alcohol affects many aspects of a person's life and can contribute to severe mental illness.
Alcohol and Depression
Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to symptoms of depression. It can be hard to recognize if alcohol has caused depressive symptoms or if depression has led to drinking. One way to know is if you start to feel better within a few weeks of quitting alcohol. This is a sign that alcohol was causing your symptoms. If symptoms continue you may have been using alcohol to cope with your mental health condition.
Alcohol can also increase the side effects of antidepressants, causing you to feel drowsy and dizzy. However, you should not try to suddenly stop drinking without support from professionals who can alleviate symptoms of withdrawal. We will talk about getting professional help for alcohol withdrawal later.
Problematic drinking can increase your risk of self-harm and suicide. Alcohol misuse lowers inhibitions and can cause you to act impulsively. This is dangerous if you are having suicidal thoughts as you may act on them when you usually would not. Heavy drinking and binge drinking particularly increase your risk of self-harm and suicide.
Warning Signs of Suicide
Most people with depression do not attempt suicide but it is important to know the signs of it in case someone you know is having suicidal thoughts. Common signs include:
- Worsening symptoms of depression
- Social withdrawal
- A sudden change from being low to appearing calm or happy
- Reckless behavior such as driving through red lights
- Getting affairs in order such as changing a will
- Visiting or calling people they care about
- Preparing a suicide plan
- Buying a gun or pills
- Speaking about suicide and death
- Watching suicide reports and searching for ways to commit suicide online
You can get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or texting the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Tackling any drinking problem is also important because alcohol problems make depression worse.
Alcohol and Anxiety
Anxiety disorders can also get worse when you drink. It is common to use alcohol to ease symptoms of social anxiety as well as anxiety related to work or other aspects of life. Drinking leads to short-term relaxation but in time you will need more to relax due to developing tolerance. The more you drink the higher your risks are of developing alcohol dependence. Hangovers can also cause you to experience worse anxiety because of alcohol's effects on brain chemistry.
If you are experiencing stress or anxiety, you should try to use alternative ways to unwind. Techniques that have been shown to help include regular exercise and spending time outside, breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. If these do not work you may want to visit a doctor to receive treatment such as therapy and medication.
Alcohol and Psychosis
Psychosis is less commonly caused by alcohol than the previously mentioned mental health disorders. It is characterized by symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions. If you drink excessively, for example, more than 30 units of alcohol per week for several weeks, this can occasionally cause psychosis. It is also possible to experience psychosis if you have been drinking heavily and quit suddenly, this is more common in those who suffer from alcohol dependence.
Long-Term Complications of Mental Health and Alcohol Use Disorders
Living with a substance use disorder and other mental illnesses is difficult. These complex issues are intricately intertwined, making it unwise to treat either the excessive alcohol use or any psychiatric disorders in isolation. Some long-term impacts of co-occurring disorders include:
- Relationship breakdowns
- Legal and medical issues
- Financial difficulties
- Health issues such as poor nutrition
For example, drinking may cause you to become more aggressive, leading to the breakdown of your relationships and losing your job. Without financial stability or supportive relationships, you experience financial difficulties and potentially homelessness. This situation makes your mental health worse and increases your alcohol use so that you can try to cope with your situation. A spiral occurs where it is very difficult to get out of the situation as so many factors have contributed to it.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment
Due to the complex relationship between alcohol abuse and mental health conditions, it can be difficult to find help. Some rehabilitation centers may refuse to treat you based on mental health issues while mental health services may refuse to treat you based on your problematic drinking. Not all services have the specialty to deal with co-occurring disorders.
It is important to find a treatment provider that will treat you for both illnesses. If you get alcohol abuse treatment but no support for a co-occurring mental illness, your reasons for drinking will not have been dealt with so it is more likely that you will relapse. Conversely, you cannot treat mental health problems if you are still drinking heavily as your continued alcohol abuse will affect your mental health as well as your physical health.
It is recommended that those with a co-occurring mental illness, particularly those with alcohol dependence or addiction, undergo inpatient treatment. With inpatient treatment, you will receive 24-hour medical monitoring and support. This means unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms are recognized and treated as soon as they occur, including mental health symptoms. You will also have access to individual therapy to help you come to terms with mental health problems and will also be able to receive medication to treat them if needed. This is true for all mental health conditions, including personality disorders and any mood disorder.
Contact Us Today
At Cornerstone, we understand the importance of treating dual diagnosis and offer a safe and non-judgmental space for those suffering. It can take time to heal from the complex issues involved. We make sure that you have all the time you need to heal your body, mind, and spirit. When you come to us we will assess you for any underlying mental illness and any other factors that could affect your treatment and recovery.
We believe in tailoring your treatment program to your specific needs. Our treatment options include:
- Medical detox
- Medication management for serious mental health disorders such as bipolar or psychosis
- Individual therapy
- Internal family systems therapy
- Group therapy
- Wellbeing activities including mindfulness, meditation, and yoga
- Nutrition education and nutritious meals
If you are suffering from both a mental health disorder and an alcohol use disorder we are here to help you. We understand that it can be extremely difficult to accept that you need help, and aim to make the process easier by offering judgment-free support.