Alcoholism’s Common Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol, which travels the body through the bloodstream, is largely absorbed in the stomach and small intestine, and when the alcohol level exceeds the body’s ability to absorb it, the person becomes drunk. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) says more than half of Americans ages 12 and older are active drinkers, and nearly a quarter binge drank in the previous 30 days. While many people can manage their alcohol consumption, others cannot, and alcoholism stands out as the common form of substance addiction. A long list of factors can motivate alcohol abuse, but for some, co-occurring mental health disorders play a major role.

Alcohol Abuse and Mental Health Disorders

The Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in 1990 that 37 percent of alcoholics have co-occurring mental health disorders, and severe cognitive impairments affect about 10 percent of heavy drinkers. Alcohol-related dementia is a significant issue, but the two most common co-occurring disorders are major depression and general anxiety. Still, depression and anxiety are more common in alcohol-abusing women than men, and gender also influences the rates of other co-occurring disorders. Several examples demonstrate gender trends, which include the following:

  • Male alcoholics are more likely to suffer from bipolar, schizophrenia, impulse disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity, narcissism and antisocial personality disorder.
  • Female alcoholics are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bulimia, post-traumatic stress and borderline personality disorder.
  • Female alcohol abusers are also more likely to have experienced physical, sexual or domestic abuse or violence than non-alcoholic women.

As one might expect, mental health disorders in general are more common in alcoholics than they are in the general population. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2011 noted several potential reasons for higher co-occurrence rates including the following:

  • Overlapping genetic vulnerabilities and predispositions
  • Overlapping environmental triggers like stress and trauma
  • Similar abnormalities and involvement in certain brain areas

Alcohol abuse often exploits mental health vulnerabilities and unmasks previously mild disorders. Likewise, a mental health disorder can motivate alcohol abuse as a way to self-medicate symptoms and numb emotional pain. Alcoholism can also affect physical health through vitamin deficiencies, hepatitis, cirrhosis, inflammation of the esophagus, gastritis, heart rate changes and decreased white blood cell counts, so other possible motivations include numbing physical pain.

Functional Alcoholics and Mental Health

Functional alcoholics are people who seem to keep their lives together despite having an addiction. The appearance of functionality is often more convincing for friends and co-workers than immediate family, and many such addicts might use alcohol to hide mental health disorders including the following:

  • Reduce inhibitions and impairments caused by social anxiety
  • Minimize outward expressions of pain caused by depression
  • Help sedate bipolar symptoms during a manic episode
  • Ease emotional discomfort when narcissism clashes with reality
  • Decrease feelings of trauma-related stress and anxiety

Whatever short-term benefits might arise from alcohol abuse, an alcoholic will not appear functional for long if the substance abuse and/or mental health disorder remains untreated. Both conditions feed off each other and ultimately accelerate symptoms, and treating both disorders together is the most effective option for a lasting recovery.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Epitomizing the high rates of alcoholism, the 2012 National Survey on Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS) found that nearly two-thirds of rehab admissions involved alcohol abuse. Moreover, the same report said 46 percent of all rehab patients had co-occurring mental health disorders. Most treatment centers provide mental health screenings because an untreated disorder like depression or anxiety can hinder addiction recovery and increase the risk of relapse. Whether a person suffers from addiction, a mental health disorder or both, rehab centers provide a variety of potential therapies including the following:

  • Supervised detox to minimize withdrawal symptoms and maximize comfort
  • The possible use of prescription drugs like naltrexone to reduce alcohol cravings
  • Integrated treatment and therapies for mental health and personality disorders
  • Targeted counseling for environmental triggers underlying the addiction and disorder
  • Behavioral therapies aimed at reducing maladaptive thought patterns and emotions
  • Challenging negative beliefs systems and attitudes that adversely affect conduct
  • Tools to identify, avoid, eliminate and neutralize cues that trigger alcohol cravings
  • Strategies to manage alcohol-obsessed thoughts and emerging mental health symptoms
  • Individual, group and family counseling to address inter- and intrapersonal issues

Aftercare services are an important resource for all recovering addicts, but they are especially critical for people with co-occurring disorders. Such individuals often require ongoing mental health therapy and treatment. Other key resources include local support groups, positive social circles, healthy new habits and an experienced recovery sponsor.

Addiction and Mental Health Services

If you struggle with addiction and/or mental health, our admissions coordinators can provide help 24 hours a day. Call our toll-free helpline to discuss warning signs, treatment methods and rehab options, and if you have health insurance, we can check the policy for benefits. Addiction and disorders typically grow worse when left untreated, so please call now for help.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email