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Alcoholism and Mental Illness: Signs, Impact and How to Get Help

Alcoholism and mental illness are closely linked. They often share a sort of symbiotic relationship, with one causing the other or making it worse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that over 9.5 million Americans currently struggle with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder. Alcohol is one of the leading drivers of these numbers. Meanwhile,  the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that alcohol kills over 95,000 Americans per year, and co-occurring mental illness often plays a key role in these deaths. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcoholism and mental illness, you’re not alone and you can get help…here’s how.

Know the Signs of Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Mental Illness

What came first: the chicken or the egg? It can be hard to separate what issues are solely related to your drinking, which are related to your general mental health and which are the result of both. Treatment and recovery include identifying and untangling the relationship between these two conditions while effectively treating the symptoms of both:

Some Signs Your Drinking Is Causing Mental Illness

  • You’re getting more aggressive and emotionally erratic.
  • You’re experiencing short-term memory loss.
  • You’re experiencing prolonged bouts of alcoholic depression.
  • You’re seeing things that aren’t there…even when you’re sober.
  • You’re engaging in increasingly high-risk behavior like drunk driving or reckless sex.

Signs Your Mental Illness is Causing You to Drink

  • You can’t face difficult situations without alcohol.
  • You’re coping with depression and anxiety by drinking.
  • You’re drinking alone in isolation while ignoring friends and family.
  • You’re lying to your loved ones about your drinking.
  • You’re drinking to forget trauma.

These are just a few of the signs that alcoholism and mental illness are causing and affecting one another. It helps to understand the specific issues that create these problems to contextualize them and help yourself or your loved one as best you can. Common problems that can strengthen the connection between alcoholism and mental illness include, but are not limited to:

  • Family Issues
  • Work Problems
  • Relationship Issues
  • Acute or Prolonged Trauma
  • Loneliness and Depression
  • Financial Hardship
  • Social or General Anxiety

These issues can trigger mental health issues that many try to solve or escape by drinking, which often leads to alcoholism and associated health issues.

Which Types of Mental Illness Are Linked to Alcoholism?

The short answer is: “all of them.” Alcoholism can be connected to virtually all types of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and others. One meta-analysis of depression and substance use among individuals with alcohol use disorders indicated that the lifetime prevalence of major depression to be over 24 percent among alcohol-dependent men and nearly 50 percent among alcohol-dependent women, greatly exceeding the prevalence of rates among individuals without AUD.

Alcohol and anxiety also share a complex and interconnected relationship. Many use alcohol as a “social lubricant” to deal with social anxiety and others using it as a bona fide regular coping mechanism for generalized anxiety disorder, trauma and other forms of the condition. Data from NIAAA indicates that 20 percent of those who suffer from anxiety disorder also have alcohol use disorder.

A study published by the National Institutes of Health indicates that 45 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder also struggle with alcohol use disorder. Another study suggests that alcohol use disorder and bipolar disorder share genetic risk factors.

Alcohol can either cause or worsen certain mental health issues, depending upon patients’ lived experiences, neurological profile and other factors. Still, it’s never a good idea to drink to cope with mental illness.

Getting Help for Co-Occurring Alcoholism and Mental Illness

You may have heard this before, but your first step toward addressing your alcoholism and mental illness is speaking it into existence or shining a light on it. You need to acknowledge that you’re struggling with both conditions and that one is making the other worse. Whether this occurs after a serious “rock-bottom” moment or it’s just a revelation to which you gradually arrive on your own, it’s something you need to realize before it gets worse. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Take a look at the least three months of your life. Has your drinking or behavior put you in danger or caused you to feel depressed or nervous to the point of inaction?
  2. When do you feel like you need to drink the most? Is it while you’re seriously depressed, anxious or in the midst of an extremely high or low mood?
  3. Have your friends or family voiced concern to you about your drinking, isolation or manic episodes?
  4. Are drinking and mental illness getting in the way of school, work or relationships?
  5. Do you feel like you’re out of control more and more in everyday life?

If the honest answer to these questions reveals a problem, you don’t have to fight it alone, but you do need help. Talk to the person who is in the best position to help you find treatment, and let them assist you, whether it’s your doctor, your spouse, your friend, your sibling, your counselor or anyone else. You have allies; use them.

What Does Alcoholism and Mental Illness Treatment Look Like?

While each person’s care needs are unique, treatment for co-occurring alcoholism and mental illness will generally consist of interventions to address the immediate medical needs and emergency care associated with drinking (and any mental illness-related self-harm). This is often accomplished through medical detoxification and (if applicable) medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This level of treatment occurs alongside comprehensive, in-depth behavioral rehab. Counseling and rehab are where you begin to unravel the relationship between your drinking and mental health issues, identify which caused the other and how to cope with both in a healthy and empowered way.

Rehab generally includes group therapy, individualized counseling and supplemental therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and others. Recovery Unplugged offers these therapies and others, including transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), to specifically treat alcohol dependency and depression.

Regain Your Health, Dignity and Peace of Mind Now

Recovery Unplugged offers comprehensive dual-diagnosis care to help you or your loved one address your co-occurring alcoholism and mental illness. We offer all levels of care, multiple locations across the country and are in-network with most major insurance providers to help you afford treatment. Don’t let your drinking and mental illness define who you are or where you’re going. Get the help you need today to reclaim your life. Contact Recovery Unplugged today.

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