is alcoholism a mental health disorder

Is Alcoholism a Mental Health Disorder?

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Alcoholism as a Disease

Alcoholism is a complicated disease and involves psychological, biological, and social components. As with other chronic illnesses, alcohol addiction often cycles into relapse and remission. Alcohol use disorder, a term doctors and clinicians use, can be mild, moderate, or severe. So, is alcoholism a mental health disorder?

The American Medical Association (AMA) identifies alcoholism as a disease with compulsive decision-making, impulsive behavior, and relapse. The AMA’s theory of alcoholism follows this criterion:

  • Does not go away or heal by itself
  • There are observable signs and symptoms
  • It is biological in nature
  • Has a conventional development and recovery timeline
  • Is progressive (can get worse and can even be fatal if left untreated)

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What Causes Alcoholism

Many risk factors play a role in someone developing alcoholism, including age, genetics, biology, environment, and social influences. The most common reason for developing is alcoholism is rooted in the brain’s reward centers.

Alcohol affects the brain’s reward center by releasing bursts of dopamine. Research shows that those genetically more susceptible to addiction tend to have lower dopamine levels in their brains. When the brain’s reward centers are flooded with alcohol or drugs, there is a learned connection between drinking and the resulting pleasure. This teaches the brain to seek drugs or alcohol to continue getting those dopamine highs, even at the expense of healthier goals and activities.

After continued alcohol abuse, the brain produces even less dopamine on its own and needs the alcohol to continue experiencing even a normal level of reward. This process is how alcohol abuse actually changes the brain physically and is one of the reasons for physical alcohol dependence.

Alcoholism and Mental Health

As mentioned before, alcoholism is a medical disorder rooted in brain changes, but is alcoholism a mental health disorder? Addiction is a real medical disorder like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. The mental and emotional aspects of addiction appear long before the physical symptoms. If the cognitive and behavioral symptoms are not treated appropriately, long-term alcohol abuse leads to many physical health issues such as cirrhosis of the liver, brain deterioration, and even death.

Alcoholism and mental illness are co-occurring in nature, and one can contribute to the development of the other. For example, some individuals drink because they are depressed (to alleviate the pain of depression), and excessive drinking can develop depression and anxiety symptoms. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that half of all people who experience substance use disorder also have a co-occurring condition.

Co-occurring disorders also tend to make one another worse. Mental illness can intensify as alcohol or drug use increases. This is also causing complications in treatment, but recovery is possible, especially when all disorders are treated simultaneously. In short, alcoholism is a mental health disorder, and treatment is most beneficial when treated.

Treatment for Alcoholism and Mental Health

Treating substance use and mental health disorders often involves the same therapeutic approaches. Integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders shares a focus on treating the body, mind, and spirit simultaneously. Getting to the root of the issue is critical for long-term sobriety. Many treatment professionals are trained in both addiction and mental health treatment. Addiction treatment centers tend to have a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and professionals who work together on an individual’s treatment plan. Some treatments include exploring a person’s thoughts, traumas, and feelings during one-on-one counseling and group therapy, and often also provides medication paired with psychotherapy.

At Legacy Healing Center’s behavioral health center, we treat alcoholism and mental health hand-in-hand. Our dual diagnosis treatment plans help get to the root of alcohol addiction and give our clients their best chance for long-term sobriety. We have a wide range of levels of care, from our alcohol detox program to inpatient program to intensive outpatient program.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism and mental health disorders, please call us at 888.534.2295 today and help you get started with treatment.