Is Alcoholism a Mental Disorder?

Alcoholism as a mental disorder.
Dominic Nicosia

Written By

Dominic Nicosia

Alcoholism is, in fact, a mental disorder, but the answer is more complex than “yes” or “no.”

The latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) specifically lists alcohol use disorder (AUD) as one of its conditions. Up until the latest edition, the APA broke problematic drinking into two distinct disorders, alcohol abuse, and alcohol dependence, with specific criteria for each. The newest edition combined them into the more general “alcohol use disorder” designation and provided one set of criteria for diagnosis.

Since alcohol is legal and an enormous part of American and global socialization practices, the lines can often get blurred between acceptable and problematic drinking. A person’s friends or family may not realize they have a problem until it’s too late and their behavior becomes extreme or dangerous. This is why it’s important to recognize the signs early.

What Alcohol Use Disorder Looks Like from the Outside

To the outside world, alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) just looks like someone’s losing control of their life or being irresponsible with their drinking. They may start to exhibit odd and alarming behavior related to alcohol use, including:

  • Missing or Showing Up Late to Work
  • Talking about Drinking More and More
  • Drinking Earlier in the Day and More Often
  • Driving While Intoxicated
  • Engaging in Other High-Risk Behavior
  • Sleeping Too Much or at Odd Hours
  • Getting Violent and Aggressive
  • Embarrassing Themselves in Public
  • Slurring their Speech
  • Falling Down
  • And More

This behavior alienates drinkers from the people closest to them and society writ large. People assume that it’s a “choice” or a “moral failing” and treat drinkers like pariahs or criminals. While drinking too much does lead to reckless and irresponsible behavior, it stops becoming all about “choice” when it rises to the level of dependency.

What Alcohol Use Disorder Looks Like from the Outside

When we say that alcoholism is a mental disorder, it’s because of the profound changes that prolonged and untreated drinking creates in the brain’s chemistry. Alcohol consumption releases endorphins in the brain, a neurotransmitter, which is responsible for pleasurable and rewards-based feelings and reactions. Prolonged excessive alcohol use can permanently alter brain chemistry because the brain will ultimately come to always expect those pleasurable experiences, reacting harshly and leading to withdrawal when the brain is deprived. So, on the outside, we see a friend or loved one who may be acting like an “irresponsible jerk” or other colorful choices; but they’re really just reacting to alcohol’s neurobiological effects.

Of course, this cycle can’t continue, and the drinking ultimately needs to stop, but by the time dependency takes hold, it’s very hard to stop on one’s own. This is why you or your loved one need comprehensive treatment.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Treatment for alcohol use disorder should include medically supervised detoxification and withdrawal management from trained doctors and nurses. This will help you or your loved one get through the acute withdrawal symptoms that so often lead to relapse because they’re often too intolerable to weather on your own.

Let’s also remember that alcoholism is a mental disorder and behavioral health issue, so you will also need rehab to help you with triggers and temptations that can lead to relapse. Recovery Unplugged offers detox and all levels of rehab, including inpatient, outpatient, long-term and more. Rehab is necessary to help you identify the root causes and triggers that keep driving you to drink so you can develop coping mechanisms to maintain sobriety.

It’s not enough to simply “get clean.” Something is causing you to drink, but whatever it is, it doesn’t have to anymore. Contact Recovery Unplugged today to start your treatment and recovery.

Dominic Nicosia

Dominic Nicosia

The Senior Content Writer here at Recovery Unplugged, Dominic Nicosia oversees the maintenance of our online blog while also handling and overseeing all written communications within Marketing. He also writes articles, thought leadership pieces, and basically everything written regarding web content. Dominic has over seven years of writing experience in the addiction care field and a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing from the University of Arts in Philadelphia. Dominic has been writing and playing music for years and is the proud owner of a Jack Russell/Pitbull mix named Jack. His favorite books are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
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