Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

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Alcoholism is many things. It is a public health crisis, a leading factor for disability and premature death, and a source of considerable emotional and financial distress. But how is it classified by the professionals who study and treat it? Is alcoholism a mental illness, a behavioral health concern, or something else entirely?

Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

Here are three quick questions (with equally quick answers) about alcoholism:

  • Is alcoholism a mental illness? Yes.
  • Is alcoholism a behavioral health disorder? Also yes.
  • Is alcoholism a risk factor for mental health concerns? Yes again.

To answer the question that you may have just asked yourself after reading the three bullet points above: Yes, it is accurate for alcoholism to be described three different ways (as a mental illness, a behavioral health disorder, and a risk factor). To understand the reasoning behind this, we need to clarify two important definitions.

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these).” Alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for alcoholism, clearly fits within the parameters of this definition. The urges that are characteristic of alcoholism can cause people to undergo changes in how they think, feel, and act.

The term “behavioral health disorder” is applied to mental health concerns such as substance use disorders (addictions), compulsive gambling, sex/love addiction, and eating disorders. The common element among these concerns is that they involve clear changes in behaviors. For example, anxiety and depression are typically characterized by changes in how a person feels, while alcoholism and other types of addiction are identifiable by obvious changes in how people act. 

To be precise, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression can also cause dramatic changes in behaviors. Addiction can absolutely impact how a person feels. We are focusing on the most prominent types of symptoms. In the case of addiction, they are considered behavioral.

How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

In the previous section, we answered the question, Is alcoholism a mental illness? in the affirmative. But we also noted that alcoholism can be a risk factor for mental illnesses. The potential confusion that can result from these two statements is why the term behavioral health disorder is used to differentiate alcoholism and other types of addiction from other mental illnesses. This terminology can be valuable when trying to understand the relationship between addiction and mental health.

For some people, alcoholism develops as a result of a mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A person who struggles with the symptoms of one of these mental health concerns may begin to abuse alcohol as a means of temporarily alleviating their emotional suffering. When the effects of the alcohol wear off, and the psychological pain returns, the person may feel that their only recourse is to continue drinking. This can lead to a downward spiral that ends in alcoholism.

In other cases, people who began to drink socially or recreationally may become dependent on alcohol. Their compulsive use of this substance can cause problems with their health, their relationships, and their job. These difficulties, combined with their inability to stop drinking, can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder, a depressive disorder, or another mental health concern.

No matter which occurs first, a person who has both an alcohol use disorder and a co-occurring mental health disorder needs comprehensive treatment that can address the full scope of their needs. 

In clinical terms, the simultaneous presence of addiction and a mental illness is known as dual diagnosis. Thankfully, dual diagnosis is treatable. Unfortunately, many people who need professional help for dual diagnosis either don’t receive the care that can improve their lives.

How to Treat Both Alcoholism and Mental Illness?

To effectively treat alcoholism and mental illness, an essential early step is to conduct a thorough assessment. The information that is collected during this assessment can help the treatment professionals determine which levels of care and types of services are best for the individual. 

At the dual diagnosis treatment centers that are affiliated with Renewal Health Group, treatment for alcoholism and co-occurring mental illness may occur at the following levels:

  • Detoxification
  • Residential treatment
  • Intensive outpatient program

Depending on factors such as which level of care a person is in, what type of mental illness they have developed, and the severity of their alcohol addiction, dual diagnosis treatment may include elements such as the following:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • EMDR and other trauma services
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Holistic healing techniques
  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Neurofeedback

During dual diagnosis treatment, patients can learn to manage the symptoms of their mental health disorder. In addition, they can develop the skills that will support successful, long-term recovery from alcohol addiction. Therapy sessions may address a wide range of relevant topics, such as learning about the disease of addiction, managing stress, avoiding or resolving conflicts, preventing relapse, maintaining healthy relationships, and developing an effective personal support network.

Begin Dual Diagnosis Treatment in Los Angeles, California

Renewal Health Group is a premier provider of comprehensive treatment for adults whose lives have been disrupted by alcoholism and co-occurring mental illnesses. Our dual diagnosis treatment centers in the Los Angeles, California, area are safe and supportive places where adults receive customized services from teams of skilled and compassionate professionals. 

With our help, you can end your alcohol abuse, regain control of your thoughts and behaviors, and live a much healthier and more hopeful life. To learn more about how you can benefit from dual diagnosis treatment at Renewal Health Group, please visit our Admissions page or call us today.

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