Mental health issues and alcohol addiction often appear together in what’s known as a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder.
As anyone who’s struggled with alcohol dependence will know, dealing with this on its own can be remarkably tough, but when you throw mental health problems into the mix things get harder still.
Today, we’ll be exploring the intermixing of mental health and alcohol addiction to help anyone suffering from this debilitating double-edged sword that can make recovery seem like an uphill struggle. Luckily, with the right support network and plenty of determination, you can overcome these problems. It’s perfectly possible to fight back on both fronts and reclaim the life you deserve.
Alcohol Addiction and Mental Health Problems
For the purposes of today, we’ll be looking at alcohol addiction. This level of dependence is more dramatic than simple abuse. Alcohol dependence is defined by a psychological and physical addiction meaning alcohol controls the choices and actions of the drinker. In this sense, alcohol addiction is widely considered to be a disease.
Mental health problems obviously occupy a vast landscape so for the sake of today’s investigation, we’ll be examining the way in which alcohol addiction co-occurs with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.
How Common Are Co-Occurring Disorders?
The short answer is much more common than you might first imagine.
If you’re dependent on alcohol, you are 2.6 times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder and 3.6 times more likely to experience a mood disorder than someone who is not alcohol dependent. These figures are based on general population-based surveys.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published some reports lasering in on the issue of co-occurring disorders which show that as many as half of all individuals with severe mental health disorders are also substance abusers. This can include addiction to alcohol. 37% of all those addicted to alcohol have at least one mental health problem. Of all those diagnosed with mental health disorders, almost one-third abuse either alcohol or drugs.
While these figures are alarming, they also raise an immediate question: does alcohol addiction lead to mental health problems or do people tend to drink as a result of feeling depressed or to dampen down anxiety?
What Comes First: Alcohol Addiction or Mental Health Problems?
While it’s clear that alcohol dependency and mental health disorders are very closely linked, it’s not necessarily as clear-cut as one directly causing the other.
Here’s what we do know:
- Alcohol addiction can worsen the symptoms of a mental health problem: If you’re addicted to alcohol, symptoms of an existing mental health disorder can be seriously inflamed. In some cases, new symptoms can arise. Alcohol can also react adversely with any medication you might be taking to treat depression or anxiety. This can be particularly severe if you’re suffering from bipolar disorder and taking lithium or any other mood stabilizers.
- Alcohol addiction can increase the risk of a mental health problem developing: Mental disorders develop as a result of genetics, with the environment and other elements also playing a part. If you’re already at risk of a mental health problem, drinking excessively can be enough to trigger a disorder.
- Alcohol is often used to self-medicate symptoms of a mental health problem: When mental disorders are undiagnosed, it’s commonplace for someone in distress to try numbing the pain and boosting their mood by drinking. Not only can this bring about a range of side effects, it can worsen the underlying problem.
So, while alcohol problems are more common in people suffering from severe mental disorders, this is not necessarily a case of alcohol causing this. It can, though, sometimes be a contributory factor.
Diagnosing a co-occurring disorder is tricky. It first pays to look closer at both sides of the issue and to analyze the extent of alcohol dependence as well as any mental health issues. You and your doctor will then be in a stronger position to establish whether or not you might be presented with a dual diagnosis.
How To Tell If You Might Be Addicted To Alcohol
If you fear your abuse of alcohol might have strayed into full-blown alcohol addiction, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions.
Here are 10 warning signs that indicate you might be dependent on alcohol, especially if you find yourself answering positively to many of these questions:
- Do you often think you should cut down your drinking?
- If so, have you tried to reduce your consumption and failed?
- Do you frequently harbor feelings of guilt about the amount you’re drinking?
- Are you regularly lying to others about the quantity of alcohol you consume?
- Have friends or family expressed concern about your drinking habits?
- Are you experiencing any problems in your interpersonal relationships due to the amount of alcohol you drink?
- Have you blacked out as a result of heavy drinking?
- Have you gotten into any legal trouble through drinking to excess?
- Do you say things when drunk that you later regret?
- Have you attempted to stop drinking altogether?
How To Tell If You Might Have a Mental Health Problem
Mental health problems are nuanced and you should speak with a doctor if you feel you’re suffering from any kind of undiagnosed disorder.
Here are some common signs and symptoms that could indicate you’re suffering from anxiety, depression or even bipolar disorder.
Signs of Anxiety
- Extreme tension
- Loss of focus
- Muscle tension
- Racing Heart
- Shortness of breath
Signs of Depression
- Appetite loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling worthless
- Flagging energy levels
- Loss of interest in normal activities and interests
- No feeling of pleasure
- Reckless behavior
- Sleep problems
- Weight changes
Signs of Bipolar Disorder
- Changes in energy levels
- Grandiose beliefs
- Impaired judgment
- Impulsive behavior
- Racing thoughts
- Sleep problems
Having looked at whether or not you might be addicted to alcohol and then examined whether or not you could also have some form of mental health problem, what’s the outlook if this turns out to be a dual diagnosis?
Treatment for Dual Diagnosis
The co-occurrence of alcoholism and mood disorders has many adverse clinical outcomes from increased mood destabilization through to delayed recovery from alcohol dependence. Also, the sedative effect of many antidepressant medications can interact with alcohol impairing coordination and judgment.
If you find you’re struggling with both alcohol addiction and mental health, it can feel overwhelming. Denial on one or both counts often seems preferable to dealing with these issues but this approach will only worsen things.
While you might naturally feel you’re facing a hopeless cause, this is simply not the case. Both alcohol addiction and mental health disorders are treatable problems. It’s just a question of finding the right treatment.
Integrated treatment for co-occurring disorders is widely acknowledged to be the most effective. This combined approach means both issues will be treated head-on and simultaneously. By trying to deal with alcohol dependence first without also treating the co-occurring mental health problem, the risk of relapse is dramatically heightened.
With an integrated approach to treatment, you’ll be able to get all the medical and therapeutic resources you need to start the ongoing process of recovery.
You shouldn’t underestimate the need for treatment if you suspect you are both dependent on alcohol and also suffering from a mental health disorder. While dangerous enough in isolation, when co-occurring you could be looking at a deadly combination if you don’t take action.
What can you expect if you seek out a treatment program for dual diagnosis?
Treatment Programs for Co-Occurring Disorders
A core part of integrative treatment is the promotion of health and wellness through lifestyle changes. These will be gradually weaved in as you start any program of treatment.
Aside from helping yourself, there’s plenty of help you can get from the right program every step of this challenging journey. What, exactly, can you expect?
Supervised Medical Detox
If you’re addicted to alcohol, you might need some assistance during the medical detoxification period. Indeed, 50% of all problem drinkers experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking.
An effective treatment program will offer medically supervised detox with all the support you need as your body rids itself of toxins.
Detox is the first stage down the long road of recovery and, once stabilized and abstinent, you’ll be in better shape for further evaluation.
Evaluation and Diagnosis
Integrated treatment post-detox kicks off with a thorough evaluation so all existing mental health symptoms can be precisely determined. At this stage, you’ll also benefit from establishing any other potential obstacles in the way of recovery to maximize your chances once treatment proper begins.
Based on this evaluation, a diagnosis is made and this will help you move to the formulation of a personalized treatment plan.
Formulation of Treatment Plan
Treatment plans will differ from person to person. The most effective treatment is always personal and this is doubly important with co-occurring disorders.
A range of therapeutic and medical treatment is used with a dual diagnosis so you’ll be able to more effectively manage any symptoms of a mental health disorder while also coping with the early stages of sobriety.
Therapy of all varieties is a central part of all treatment for co-occurring disorders, including individual, group, and family therapies.
- Individual Therapy: Your treatment goals will be based on the initial plan formulated so working individually with a therapist allows you to alter these goals as necessary and to keep things calibrated to your needs. Discussing any problems you’re undergoing during treatment will be balanced with examining the past and looking ahead to establish future goals.
- Group Therapy: From 12-step addiction groups to mental health support groups, a range of group therapy options will be tabled. Again, you’ll receive guidance on which of these would work best given your specific circumstances.
- Family Therapy: Most treatment programs for co-occurring disorders give you the chance to involve your family in the process. You’ll all learn to better communicate with one another and to look at rebuilding potentially damaged relationships.
Treatment for co-occurring disorders is an ongoing journey so it’s essential to work with your therapist to create a personalized aftercare plan.
From attendance at support groups like AA through to sustained mental health care, you’ll need to continue addressing both strands of this problem at the same time and on a sustained basis.
You’ll also receive help in making lifestyle changes to help yourself as we mentioned above. From improving your nutrition to working on your family relationships, from addressing any underlying medical conditions to transitioning back into work and normal life, taking responsibility for yourself will be so much easier once you’re already on the path to recovery.
If you find yourself dependent on alcohol while also suffering from a mental health disorder, you don’t need to go it alone. Indeed, you absolutely shouldn’t suffer in silence.
Speak to your friends and family. Make an appointment with your doctor at the earliest opportunity. Even if things seem hopeless, seeking help and support is the first step and the most crucial one.
Remember: alcohol addiction can feed mental health problems and vice-versa, but taking prompt action can stop this vicious circle and set you on the road to recovery sooner than you might imagine.