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Alcohol Use Disorder and Mental Illness: What You Should Know

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — April 3, 2020 — 3 min read
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that nearly 20% of adults with a mental illness in the U.S. also experience a substance use disorder. According to a 2013 study by the CDC, nearly 3,000 North Carolinians die of binge drinking each year.
 
While many North Carolinians know that alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) is a substance use disorder, most don’t realize how mental illness can impact this diagnosis. Illnesses like bipolar disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can complicate (and sometimes lead to) a substance use disorder.
 
 
If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately.

What You Should Know about Mental Illness & Heavy Alcohol Use:

  • Alcohol is a depressant.
  • Women diagnosed with depression are two times more likely to develop heavy drinking habits than those without depression.
  • People who are depressed and drink heavily are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.
  • Frequent heavy drinking can make psychiatric medication like antidepressants less effective .
  • Bipolar disorder and alcohol use disorder combined can increase a person’s risk of violence and suicide.

How Can Mental Illness Affect the Use or Misuse of Alcohol?

Alcohol, especially excessive alcohol use, can interfere with the effectiveness and the side effects of many types of psychiatric medication. Below we discuss how someone with a specific mental illness might be affected by excessive alcohol use.

Depression and Alcohol

Someone diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) may use alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms such as:
  • Feelings of loneliness and helplessness
  • Accompanying physical pain
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Anger
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
While use of alcohol does not necessarily cause major depressive disorder, those who have been diagnosed with depression and drink alcohol can worsen their symptoms. Both illnesses (depression and alcohol use disorder) can often fuel the other and create what is called a dual diagnosis.

Bipolar Disorder and Alcohol

Like an individual with depression, a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder may use alcohol to self-medicate symptoms. A person with bipolar disorder often swings between high and low moods (aka manic and depressive episodes).
 
During their lows, they may abuse alcohol the same way someone with depression would. During their highs, they may exhibit riskier behavior like driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Alcohol

Individuals with OCD usually will have an uncontrollable obsession that will cause (or trigger) a compulsion (example: an obsession-compulsion with cleanliness, cleaning your hands, etc.). A person with OCD can also use alcohol to relax their anxieties or obsessions. Unfortunately, alcohol only worsens their symptoms and can lead to an addiction or dual diagnosis.

Mental Illness and/or Alcohol Use Disorder Resources

North Carolinians have lots of options available to them if they are struggling with mental illness or alcohol use. Check out the resources below if you or a loved one might have an alcohol use disorder: For immediate referrals and counseling related to alcohol abuse, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline: 1-800-662-4357

 
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