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Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders: Definition, List of Psychiatric Disorders and Treatment

Last Updated: 11/03/2022

Psychiatric disorders are a wide range of disorders that affect mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns in individuals. Some psychiatric  disorders, such as depression and anxiety, have become increasingly prevalent in our society. In fact, most people know the general warning signs and symptoms. 

What many people don’t know is that alcoholism is also a psychiatric disorder that affects nearly 14.5 million people over the age of 12 in the United States alone. Alcohol use disorder (AUD), as defined by the DSM-5, includes alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. Alcoholism is diagnosed on a scale of mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms a patient is experiencing.

When a patient is suffering from more than one psychiatric disorder, the disorders are considered to be comorbid disorders and often include a more personalized treatment plan to ensure all of their needs are met. In the case of comorbid disorders including alcoholism, this treatment plan could include a combination of detox programs, medication, and counseling programs.  

What are Psychiatric Disorders?

Psychiatric disorders are a broad range of problems that affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and mood; more commonly these are referred to as “mental illnesses.” There are a variety of treatment options for psychiatric disorders and many are dependent on the condition at hand as well as the way the disorder personally affects an individual. Psychiatric disorders may present differently for different people and can range from mild to severe in how they affect someone’s ability to function in their daily life. 

If you suspect you or a loved one is suffering from a psychiatric disorder, including alcoholism, you are encouraged to speak to a healthcare professional and see what treatments are available to you.

What are the Main Psychiatric Disorders?

There are many psychiatric disorders and the field continues to develop. In fact, more about each condition becomes understood each year. 

Some of the main, or most common, psychiatric disorders are below.

There are also mental illnesses that fall under unique categories and one example is dissociative identity disorder.

What are the Causes of Psychiatric Disorders?

There is no single cause for psychiatric disorders. However, there are a significant amount of things that may put you at a greater risk for developing a psychiatric disorder. We list these risks below.

  • Genetics and family history of mental health struggles
  • Life experiences such as the stress of abuse, especially when experienced in childhood
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Experiencing a serious medical condition
  • Extended loneliness or isolation
  • Traumatic experiences such as natural disasters, war, loss of a loved one

It is important to remember, however, that you do not have to experience a traumatic or stressful event in your life to experience common symptoms of psychiatric disorders. Some people are genetically predisposed to mental health conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia, while others simply develop these conditions due to chemical imbalances in their brains that can occur spontaneously. 

Regardless of the reason for the onset of your symptoms, those symptoms and feelings are valid and deserve proper attention and treatment. 

What Effects Does Alcoholism Have on Those with Psychiatric Disorders?

Alcoholism is a comorbid psychiatric disorder when present alongside another psychiatric condition. It also has the potential to worsen the symptoms of the other psychiatric disorder(s). 

For many people struggling with psychiatric disorders, especially in cases where the psychiatric disorders are undiagnosed or untreated, alcohol is viewed as a way to self-manage or self-medicate unwanted symptoms. 

What many people struggling with alcoholism do not realize is that the feelings of relief they may experience from alcohol consumption are only a temporary form of relief. These feelings often worsen symptoms in the long run. Most notably, alcohol has the potential to worsen symptoms of psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, and paranoia. 

Symptoms of depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis can be symptoms of AUD and may be present during intoxication or withdrawal. When these symptoms are present during intoxication or withdrawal they should be temporary, only lasting a few weeks, but can be prematurely misdiagnosed. 

It is important to acknowledge that alcoholism can limit or prevent proper treatment for comorbid psychiatric disorders, as many psychiatric medications cannot safely be mixed with alcohol. 

Additionally, alcoholism may make people less likely, or less able, to not only seek help but to adhere to routine treatment plans such as therapy and counseling. 

What are the Statistics on Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders?

As of 2019, the National Institute for Mental Health reported that roughly 1 in 5 adults struggle with a psychiatric disorder (roughly 51.5 million people). Similarly, it is estimated that nearly 14.5 million people over the age of 12 struggle with some form of AUD. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that roughly 50% of people struggling with a severe mental illness also struggle with some form of substance use disorder. The last available estimate for the overlap of comorbid psychiatric disorders in which one disorder is AUD was put at roughly 37%. 

While many of these numbers may seem shocking, it is important to remember that these are based on people who choose to seek help and report their conditions. Based on current reports, women are more likely to struggle with psychiatric disorders, but there is an acknowledgment that men are less likely to report or seek help for psychiatric disorders.  These are only some of the facts and statistics about alcoholism.

What Risks do People with Psychiatric Disorders Face from Alcoholism?

Roughly one-third of people who are struggling with alcoholism also have a co-occurring psychiatric disorder. Therefore, there are several risks they can face. 

With alcoholism as part of a dual-diagnosis, there is a high chance that a secondary diagnosis may go untreated. In cases of psychiatric disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, there are a significant amount of symptoms that overlap with those of alcoholism. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to determine which disorder is causing the symptoms and the degree to which it’s affecting the individual. 

On the other hand, some people may choose to not disclose the nature of their relationship with alcohol which can make it both difficult and dangerous to treat a diagnosed psychiatric condition. Additionally, this has the potential to lead to incorrect or premature diagnoses of psychiatric disorders, when alcoholism is the core root of the symptoms.

Another significant risk is that people who are suffering from alcoholism and a psychiatric disorder may be more vulnerable to finding themselves in dangerous or unhealthy situations.

Alcoholism and psychiatric disorders both have the potential to lead to financial difficulties and job instability when not properly treated and lead to someone finding themselves stuck in dangerous situations such as co-dependant or abusive relationships.

Additionally, there is a higher risk for additional substance abuse problems such as illicit drug use. With proper treatment, people can recover from and manage co-occurring alcoholism and psychiatric disorders, and there are a variety of treatment options available that have the resources to treat both simultaneously.  

What are the Treatments for Psychiatric Disorders and Alcoholism?

There are several treatment options for those struggling with psychiatric disorders and alcoholism, with the most recommended option being an integrated treatment approach. 

An integrated treatment approach is a treatment plan that includes a combination of therapies. Combinations will include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on thoughts and behaviors or dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) which focuses on correcting harmful behaviors. Group therapy or local support groups, and medication are also useful. 

When doing a combination treatment program such as this, the patient is not only able to change their problematic behaviors, such as heavy drinking, but are also able to work through other aspects of their diagnosis. Other aspects include harmful thoughts and triggers, while becoming more aware of how their psychiatric disorders affect their drinking habits and vice versa. In the course of such a treatment plan, patients can expect to work with several professionals including primary care doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and counselors. 

What is the Relationship Between Alcoholism and Psychiatric Disorders?

Nearly one-third of people who struggle with alcoholism are likely to have or develop a comorbid psychiatric disorder. Common disorders include anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. However, alcoholism also worsens the symptoms of psychiatric disorders and may produce an additional set of symptoms that mimics psychiatric disorders.

Additionally, as long-term alcohol abuse permanently alters the chemistry of the brain, it also makes individuals more susceptible to developing the disorders mentioned above. 

Do People Who Suffer from Psychiatric Disorders Drink Excessively?

It is a myth that all people who suffer from psychiatric disorders drink excessively. An individual’s relationship with alcohol, perceptions of alcohol, and family history of alcoholism all have an impact on how they choose to drink or abstain from alcohol. 

For example, an individual who has a family history of alcoholism and personally participates in binge drinking activities, such as parties or bar hopping, may have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. In this situation they may choose to use it as a crutch or coping mechanism to soothe the symptoms of a diagnosed or undiagnosed psychiatric disorder. 

On the other hand, someone who chooses to abstain from alcohol or only consumes alcohol on special occasions, regardless of family history, may have less of a risk of developing alcoholism due to their personal choices. 

A trope commonly seen in media is that of individuals who suffer from PTSD engaging in heavy or excessive alcohol consumption, which can greatly alter the public’s perception of the nature of comorbid alcoholism and psychiatric disorders. 

With this, it is important to acknowledge that many of these tropes surround people who have an undiagnosed psychiatric condition and are often using alcohol as a way to self-soothe or self-medicate. While there is a very real risk of this situation occurring, it’s still heavily dependent on personal choice. Treatment options and support systems are available to the affected individual at the onset of symptoms. 

Does Alcoholism Cause Psychiatric Disorders?

Alcoholism is rarely ever the direct cause of psychiatric disorders. That said, alcoholism indirectly affects and influences psychiatric disorders in a variety of ways. 

Alcoholism directly affects the way the brain works, specifically regarding communication pathways which can affect areas such as memory and judgment. In turn, this can bring on symptoms such as depression, or make symptoms of pre-existing psychiatric conditions worse. 

Many people who struggle with alcoholism experience higher rates of anxiety and depression which can worsen into thoughts of suicide or full-fledged disorders that require their specialized attention and treatment. 

Additionally, alcoholism contributes to the development of psychiatric conditions through other means such as the environment. For example, if someone who is suffering from alcoholism finds themselves also struggling with additional substance abuse, homelessness, financial instability, abusive relationships, or job instability, there is the potential they may develop trauma or other psychiatric disorders as a direct result of the situation.

Does Alcoholism Relieve Psychiatric Disorders?

No, alcoholism does not relieve psychiatric disorders. In the short term, alcohol is often associated with an increased mood, which may take away from some of the more negative symptoms of psychiatric disorders. These symptoms that alcohol temporarily relieves are depression, anxiety, or trauma-related thoughts and feelings. 

In the long term, however, alcoholism leads to an increase in those negative feelings or the experience of feeling trapped by those feelings. Using alcohol as an escape can quickly become dangerous and hurt your mental health, or potentially worsen the conditions you are struggling with. 

Does Alcoholism make Psychiatric Disorders Worse?

Yes, alcoholism has the potential to make psychiatric disorders worse or more difficult to manage.

 Many people often feel as though alcohol helps to relieve their symptoms in the short term but this is only temporary. Having comorbid psychiatric disorders like depression and alcoholism makes finding an effective treatment plan more difficult.

Many antidepressants, for example, are extremely dangerous to take with alcohol as they can amplify the side effects of both and raise the chances of accidental overdose. The same is true for anxiety disorders for which people have commonly prescribed benzodiazepines such as Xanax, one of the most dangerous drugs to mix with alcohol due to the high risk for overdose and death. 

Additionally, treating a patient who is dealing with trauma, compulsive behaviors or mood disorders who is regularly under the influence of alcohol may make it difficult to find or practice healthy coping mechanisms, as well as work through the root of the problem at hand. 

Can you drink Alcohol on Psychiatric medication?

No, you cannot drink alcohol while taking psychiatric medication. 

While there are some medications, such as gabapentin, that have multiple uses that include alcoholism treatment, it is generally very dangerous to mix any medication with alcohol unless specifically directed to by a health care professional. 

In the case of psychiatric medications such as antidepressants, there is a chance that mixing them with alcohol decreases the effectiveness of the medication. Mixing medication will also often amplify the side effects of the medication.

Additionally, many psychiatric medications, and medications in general, are cleared from the body via the liver, just as alcohol is, and as such can put an increased strain on the liver, potentially leading to liver damage. 

Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

Yes, alcoholism is considered a mental illness. While not listed as “alcoholism,” the DSM-5 lists alcohol use disorder, a combination of both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence from the DSM-4, as a psychiatric disorder that is diagnosed on a scale of mild to severe. So, what is alcoholism? It’s a condition that develops when abusing alcohol for many years.

Alcoholism, like many other psychiatric disorders, should be treated as a medical condition in addition to a psychiatric condition as it affects not only the mind but the body in several ways.