Is Alcohol Dependence A Mental Illness?
Many people who struggle with alcohol addiction may wonder if they have a mental illness that causes addiction and makes sobriety a challenge. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alcoholism is defined as an alcohol use disorder. It is a mental illness diagnosable for people who meet at least two out of the eleven criteria for the disorder.
Alcohol addiction is a complex disease often linked to other types of mental illness, like anxiety and depression. It can be challenging to treat, as it involves cycles of remission and relapse. It can be more confusing because some people may be lifelong drinkers without developing alcoholism, while others can become addicted in a few short years, and there’s no way to predict who will develop an addiction and who won’t.
Biological Reasons For Alcohol Addiction
Although multiple risk factors come into play, like age, sex, genetic predisposition, and environmental stresses, the biggest reason people become addicted to alcohol is how alcohol affects the reward center in the brain. Dopamine is a reward hormone released when we’ve completed a difficult task, finished a workout, or are engaging in a pleasurable activity. It sends the brain a rush of happiness that reinforces you to complete the activity again, to receive that “rush reward.” Research indicates that people who naturally produce low dopamine levels may be more susceptible to addiction.
Alcohol interacts with the same receptors in the brain that dopamine does, producing that same sense of pleasure and exultation. This sets off the same reaction in the brain and reinforces the drinking behavior. The brain becomes used to getting the same results from drinking as engaging in other types of activity. Over time, it stops naturally producing dopamine and instead relies on the artificial substance, alcohol, to provide that pleasurable feeling.
Once a person stops drinking, they often feel like life is flat and lifeless. It’s hard for them to take pleasure in activities they once used to enjoy. This is because their brain isn’t producing enough dopamine. Relapse can be a danger at this time because people seek alcohol to help bring that feeling of joy or rewards. However, the good news is that with sustained abstinence, the brain will begin producing dopamine again.
Is Alcoholism Considered a Medical Disease?
In 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) identified alcoholism as a disease characterized by impulsive behavior and compulsive decision making, with periods of relapse. The AMA defined alcoholism based on these criteria:
- It is biological in nature
- It will not heal or go away on its own
- There are observable symptoms and signs
- It is progressive and fatal if left untreated
- A predictable pattern of development and recovery
Furthermore, in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) listed substance abuse disorder (SAD) as a mental health disorder, replacing its designation in earlier editions ofo the DSM as part of a set of personality disorders.
Alcoholism, like anxiety and depression, is a mental disorder rooted in brain changes. As a primary and chronic disease of the brain, it can lead to biological, spiritual, and psychological manifestations, which present as the individual pathologically pursuing relief and reward from the substance.
For many people, the mental and emotional symptoms of SAD present before physical symptoms emerge. If the behavioral and mental aspects of alcoholism aren’t treated, then the individual may engage in long-term alcohol abuse, which leads to chronic brain deterioration, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, and sometimes leading to death.
Mental and emotional symptoms occur long before physical symptoms appear. If behavioral or cognitive symptoms aren’t appropriately treated, long-term alcohol abuse can lead to physical complications such as cirrhosis of the liver, chronic brain deterioration, and, the most serious consequence of all, death.
The Difference in Treating Alcohol Abuse and Other Mental Health Treatments
Many approaches to treating mental health issues and substance abuse disorder are the same. In fact, many addiction counselors are integrated providers trained to treat both SAD and other mental health issues. A dual diagnosis and treatment of both the addiction and underlying mental health concerns are often the most successful.
Mental health treatment focuses on the patient’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior and seeks to improve these through individual and group counseling. Addiction treatment also has these components and many people with SAD benefit from the support network that group counseling provides. Medication and psychotherapy are often paired together for mental health and addiction treatments.
Are You Struggling With Alcohol Addiction?
If you’re worried about your drinking, or about a loved one’s drinking habits, there is hope. America’s Rehab Campus can treat alcohol addiction and help clients understand the underlying reasons for their substance abuse. We offer medically supervised detox for safety, as well as intensive outpatient therapy and group counseling. We meet you where you are and provide a personalized treatment plan to help you get sober and tools to help you maintain sobriety in a compassionate environment. Contact us today for a confidential assessment.