Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

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Also known as alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction, alcoholism, like all other forms of addiction, is a disease. Like many other diseases, alcoholism does not discriminate based on age, gender, or ethnicity. Alcoholism does not care how much money you make or the type of house you live in or even how educated you are. 

While alcoholism is a disease and can affect someone’s physical well-being, it can also affect them mentally. Alcoholism also coincides with many different types of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. It’s one of the many reasons people wonder, “Is alcoholism considered a mental illness?” 

While the answer to this question can be a little tricky, it’s an important one to answer, especially for those who might be in a position where they need help for either alcoholism, mental health issues, or both. Let’s take a look at that question and talk about some of the ways you or someone you know can get help for alcoholism.

What Is a Mental Illness?

Before we address whether or not alcoholism is a mental illness, it’s important to understand what exactly a mental illness is. A mental illness is a condition that prevents someone from behaving in a “normal” manner both with themselves, with others, and within their environment. Some of the most common mental health issues are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Personality disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Schizophrenia

Many of these conditions are associated with alcoholism, including anxiety and depression. Despite mental health conditions affecting millions of people on a daily basis, many people are embarrassed to admit they have a problem. Oftentimes, this results in the person turning to things like drugs and alcohol to suppress those feelings of embarrassment and trying to forget their problems. This is another way in which alcoholism and mental illness are connected. 

Is Alcohol Addiction a Mental Illness?

While alcoholism might not be as easy to spot as other diseases or mental health conditions, it is still considered both a medical and mental condition. In addition, treatment for alcohol abuse involves both physical and psychological components. As a result, both the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders officially recognize alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and alcohol addiction as mental health conditions. 

Under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, health insurance providers are legally required to cover treatment costs for alcoholism since it falls under the categories of both substance abuse and mental health disorders. So, is alcoholism considered a mental illness? The short answer is yes. 

When Was Alcoholism Officially Recognized as a Mental Illness?

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association formally recognized substance use disorder, such as alcoholism, as a mental health disorder. It had previously been categorized as a personality disorder but was identified as a mental health disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 

How Do Alcohol and Alcoholism Affect the Brain?

According to a variety of studies over the years, alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction lead to significant changes in overall brain makeup and functionality. When someone suffers from alcoholism, they tend to go through three different stages: 

  • Stage 1: Drinking to the point of intoxication or inebriation. After reaching that point, the effects of the alcohol begin to wear off, resulting in withdrawal symptoms kicking in both physically and mentally. 
  • Stage 2: The person becomes obsessed with getting their next drink. Over time, this repeated pattern can result in significant changes in brain function. 
  • Stage 3: It becomes nearly impossible for the person to stop drinking on their own because their brain is programmed to think that they must be drunk to function properly. When they aren’t, the brain thinks something is wrong. 

When alcohol changes the overall makeup of the brain, it largely affects three areas:

  • The basal ganglia – Responsible for motor control
  • The prefrontal cortex – Supports cognitive function
  • The extended amygdala – Reward recognition

When these three parts of the brain are disrupted, it significantly increases the desire for the person to drink alcohol, increases their feelings of stress, and reduces impulse control. 

What Are the Different Stages of Alcoholism?

The progression from casually drinking with friends or co-workers to alcohol abuse and then alcoholism can take a while and is often not very noticeable to outsiders. In fact, once it gets to a point where it is a real problem, many people have trouble pinpointing when exactly their drinking became an issue. 

This is why it’s so important to know and understand the different stages of alcoholism, as well as be able to identify them.

Problematic Drinking

The first stage of alcoholism is called problematic drinking. During this stage, friends and family members of the person drinking may begin to notice that their drinking has started to become an issue. It’s also at this point that the drinker may begin to experience some of the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with alcoholism, since the body and the brain have both become more and more accustomed to alcohol being in the system. 

The drinker might also begin to experience health issues, performance issues at work or school, or even financial problems. 

Severe Alcohol Abuse

The next stage is what’s known as severe alcohol abuse. At this point, the drinker has become ever more dependent on alcohol both physically and psychologically. This is also when mental health issues start to kick in, such as feelings of anxiety, depression, aggression, and irritability.

It is at this point that the drinker might also begin to start pulling away from friends and family members, as well as start to show some of the more common signs of addiction.

Obsessive Alcohol Abuse

The final stage is called obsessive alcohol abuse. At this point, the drinker will likely have alcohol in their system at all times when they are awake and immediately experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t. From a psychological standpoint, the obsession with alcohol can be crippling as the drinker becomes obsessed with not only drinking but figuring out where their next drink will come from. 

How Can I Get Help for Alcoholism?

Whether you are in the problematic drinking stage, the obsessive alcohol abuse stage, or somewhere in between, the good news is help is available. 

The first step in the process of getting help for alcoholism is to enter into a detox program to rid your body of any alcohol in your system, as well as any other harmful substances that might be in your system, as well. 

Due to the nature of detoxing and the side effects associated with it, it is important to detox under the care and supervision of trained medical professionals. This can be done at either a local medical facility, a dedicated detox center, or a treatment facility that also provides detox services, such as Harmony Place. Attempting to self-detox can be incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening. 

Since alcoholism is both a physical and mental issue, treatment will focus on both the physical and mental aspects of addiction and recovery. At Harmony Place, we offer a wide variety of treatments for co-occurring disorders, such as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Psychoeducational groups
  • Psychodrama psychotherapy
  • Relapse prevention education and practice

In addition, some suffering from alcoholism may benefit from medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. This is typically done in the early stages of treatment, often in conjunction with detox to help relieve some of the more severe withdrawal side effects. 

Some of the medications offered include:

  • Suboxone
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone

Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

Alcoholism can be dangerous and often difficult to detect. Not only can it affect the body physically but mentally, as well. That’s why getting help for alcoholism is so important. If you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism, no matter how severe, it is important to seek help right away. 

At Harmony Place, we understand the severity of not just alcoholism but all types of addiction and substance abuse disorders. It is our goal to help everyone who walks through our doors get the help they need so they can go on to live happy, healthy, and sober lives. For more information on our treatment options, contact us today. 

Resources:

https://www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Programs-and-Initiatives/Other-Insurance-Protections/mhpaea_factsheet
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039518/