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The Vicious Cycle of Alcohol and Mental Health Disorders

Reviewer Dr. Juan Harris MBA, MS, MCAP, CMHP, SAP, CIP, ICADC
Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

alcoholism and mental health

An untreated or undiagnosed mental disorder can wreak havoc on an individual who is suffering from a disorder as well as those around them. When a person is suffering from a mental health disorder, often, they are unaware that the disorder exists. While the individual will not understand their feelings or the mental problems that they are suffering from, they may experience feelings of hopelessness, depression, anger, or impulsiveness. Because of this, they find themselves feeling lost and at times can turn to unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to numb their psychological suffering. This process is known as self-medicating. One of the most frequently used substances for self-medicating is alcohol, although illegal drugs are also commonly abused by those with mental health disorders. Although the alcohol may temporarily numb the symptoms that the user is experiencing, self-medicating can lead to serious problems.

When a person turns to alcohol for self-medicating purposes, they are more likely to become dependent upon alcohol than an individual who consumes alcohol without having a mental disorder. This is a result of trying to get rid of the psychiatric problems as well as possible impaired judgment as a result of the mental condition. This can cause those suffering to consume large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time. In turn, they may eventually develop an alcohol addiction, a serious problem in itself, which combines with the effects of the untreated mental health disorder. In fact, those with mental disorders are thought to be around 50 percent more susceptible to addiction. Although alcoholism has its own fair share of physical and mental health consequences, for those who abuse alcohol while having a mental disorder, these problems are greatly exaggerated. Essentially, the alcohol intensifies the problems originally caused by the mental disorder while also causing common problems associated with extreme alcohol use. As alcohol abuse affects the brain, it commonly causes psychological symptoms such as anxiety, paranoia, memory loss, uninhibited or high-risk behavior, auditory and visual hallucinations, depression, and a sense of detachment from the surrounding world. These symptoms are also common to many mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizophrenia, depersonalization disorder, or dementia.

Those who suffer from alcoholism in combination with a mental health disorder may have a more difficult time getting sober than others who abuse alcohol, as they feel that they need alcohol to fight the symptoms of the mental disorder. This continued use of alcohol makes it much more difficult to receive an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. This is because when a person is under the influence of alcohol, it becomes difficult for a physician to determine whether the effects (such as hallucinations) are the result of alcohol abuse or the result of an underlying condition like schizophrenia. As the two conditions influence and mimic one another, a person may seem to have a mental illness when the symptoms are actually caused by alcohol abuse or vice versa. In instances where the mental disorder goes undiagnosed and alcoholism is treated, the individual will still experience symptoms after alcohol use has ceased. This makes individuals more likely to go back to alcohol, and the cycle of alcoholism continues.

Breaking the cycle of alcoholism associated with mental health disorders requires help from a professional who specializes in dual diagnosis and treatment. Specialized centers have determined the relation between these two disorders and have developed methods in order to properly and accurately treat these individuals. In these situations, a person is continually evaluated to determine which factor is contributing to specific symptoms. For instance, when a person enters treatment, they may be experiencing extreme paranoia. After remaining sober for several weeks, these symptoms will be re-visited. If the paranoia has subsided, it is likely that alcoholism was the cause. This can make it easier to identify the true underlying disorder when psychological symptoms resulting from alcohol abuse are eliminated. The specialists will then treat the disorder accordingly or continue to investigate signs of mental disorders through counseling and other methods until a proper diagnosis can be made. When a diagnosis is made and treatment begins, it can become much easier for a person to proceed and receive treatment for their alcoholism in a manner that works along with their mental health diagnosis and treatment. This dual diagnosis and treatment approach is the most effective way to break the vicious cycle of alcoholism in individuals with mental health disorders.

To learn more about the cycle of alcoholism and mental health disorders, consult the following resources:

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