Alcoholism’s Common Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders

Mental-health disorders and addiction often go hand in hand. People who suffer from both are said to have co-occurring conditions, also called a Dual Diagnosis. When it comes to getting sober, these individuals face a steep climb; without a doubt, overcoming addiction is more difficult when other complicating factors enter the equation. There is good news, too. Recovery from both conditions is possible. The key is to understand the interplay between addiction and mental health problems — and then seek treatment from a facility that is equipped to address both. To learn more, read on.

Addiction and Mental Health Disorders: A Complex Relationship

The relationship between mental illness and addiction is complicated, say scientists at the University of North Carolina’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. On the one hand, mental illnesses can increase the risk for alcoholism or drug abuse, sometimes because of self-medicating. On the other, alcoholism can lead to significant anxiety and depression, making it indistinguishable from a mental illness. In addition, although alcoholism and psychiatric disorders often occur at the same time, experts say they are distinct conditions that must be treated individually. Otherwise, outcomes are less positive.

Some mental health conditions are more frequently associated with alcohol dependency. For instance, people who struggle with depression and anxiety may start to abuse a substance to mask the symptoms of depression. Female alcoholics are particularly likely to have depression, although male substance abusers are hardly immune. Individuals with bipolar disorder — a disorder characterized by alternating cycles of depression and an abnormally elevated mood — may attempt to even out mood swings with alcohol. Similarly, schizophrenics may get drunk in order to ease the distress caused by symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

Other factors that could explain the frequent simultaneous occurrence of addiction and mental illness include the following:

  • Genetics: Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins found more instances of having two disorders among the identical twins, indicating that genetics plays a role.
  • Chemical deficiency: A reduction in the amount of serotonin, a chemical that is critical to brain functioning, may be the reason that alcoholism and anxiety disorders coincide so often. Additional evidence supports the theory that addiction and mental disorders are associated with dysfunction in a group of brain chemicals called monoamine oxidases.
  • Shared environment: Studies show that people who grow up in an environment influenced by both addiction and mental-health problems are more likely to develop both.

People with mental disorders may also be less inhibited and, subsequently, more liable to engage in risky behavior such as buying and using illegal drugs or binge drinking. Additionally, their conditions may lead them to operate with impaired judgment and consume higher amounts of alcohol than other individuals, actions that can rapidly result in addiction.

Experts at the Vanderbilt Addiction Center studying the issue have arrived at similar conclusions. Their data supports the theory that most people do not stumble into addiction because they are easily hooked on drugs, alcohol or sex. Rather, they become chemically dependent as the result of self-medicating untreated psychiatric illnesses and neglected emotional wounds. Underdeveloped coping strategies also commonly increase vulnerability to substance abuse.

Disorders and Addiction: Different Risks for Different Diagnosis

Fifty percent of people with an addictive disorder will also develop a psychiatric disorder. Among individuals with psychiatric disorders, roughly 20% have addictions. That number is even higher for those with certain mental conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), antisocial personality disorder, anxiety, sleep disorders or depression, all increase the risk of addiction. People who suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have the highest risk of all, with up to 50% developing chemical dependence.

Researchers don’t yet know exactly why people with these particular disorders are at an increased risk for addiction. Several theories upheld by experts working with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) include the following:

  • Abruptly stopping alcohol intake can lead to withdrawal symptoms — including hallucinations — that mimic schizophrenic symptoms
  • Alcoholism and drug abuse cause brain changes, sometimes leading to changes in personality and development of mental disorders
  • Alcoholics of both genders frequently suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, while men are more likely to exhibit antisocial personality disorder than non-abusers of alcohol

It is crucial — but often quite difficult — to distinguish between psychiatric and addictive symptoms. In order to tease apart the various symptoms, a person must undergo detox and be substance-free for a period of at least two weeks. At this point, experts advise treating both at the same time, eventually identifying underlying causes of each.

Help for Alcoholism and Mental Health Problems

If you or someone you love battles both an addiction to alcohol and a mental-health disorder, you are not alone. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24-hour support line can guide you to wellness. You never have to go back to a life of addiction. Please call. Start your recovery today.

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