Know the Facts

Helping you make informed decisions about your drinking

Alcohol and Mental Health

There is growing evidence that alcohol increases the risk of some mental health problems, like depression and anxiety. Around 37% of people who report problems with alcohol also have a co-occurring anxiety and/or mood disorder. The risk of having a mental illness is around four times higher for people who drink alcohol heavily than for people who don’t.

How alcohol problems and mental illness co-occur

There are three main ways in which alcohol use and mental illness might co-occur:

Alcohol use leads to mental illness

This might occur through the mood depressant effects of alcohol that can occur during intoxication and also during withdrawal. Or, this could occur indirectly as a result of problems stemming from alcohol use that create feelings of depression and anxiety, such as fights and arguments.

Mental illness leads to alcohol use

People with mental illness tend to use alcohol for the same reasons as other people – to feel better, to have fun or relax, to relieve boredom, to deal with stress, or to feel part of a group. They may also find that alcohol improves their mood and reduces their anxiety, giving them relief from the symptoms of their mental illness. They may keep using alcohol then as a form of ‘self medication'.

Another possibility is that people with mental illness use alcohol to avoid the negative side effects of medication.

Alcohol use and mental illness are unrelated

In some cases, there may be no relationship between the two, and they just happen to co-occur by chance. Even if they start out that way, they may still end up influencing each other over time in a relationship like those described above.

Mental illness and alcohol can interact to make each other worse, and this can negatively impact on different areas of life including work, relationships and health. As a strategy for managing mental illness, alcohol use will only work in the short-term. At higher doses, alcohol actually increases distress, meaning that people become more depressed and anxious as they continue to drink.

Seeking help

Seeing your doctor is a good place to start if you would like to find out about treatment options available to you. Treatments that address both alcohol use and mental illness together are generally advised for people with co-occuring disorders. You may feel though that you would rather focus on one or the other. Talk to your doctor about your concerns, and they can help you come up with a treatment plan that will best suit your needs.

Sources

  • Burns, L., & Teesson, M. (2002). Alcohol use disorders comorbid with anxiety, depression and drug use disorders: Findings from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 68, 299-307. doi: 10.1016/S0376-8716(02)00220-X
  • Drake, R.E., McLaughlin, P., Pepper, B., & Minkoff, K. (1991). Dual diagnosis of major mental illness and substance disorder: An overview. New Directions for Mental Health Services, 50, 3-12.
  • Kavanagh, D.J., & Connolly, J.M. (2009). Interventions for co-occuring addictive and other mental disorders (AMDs). Addictive Behaviors, 34, 838-845.
  • Siegfried, N. (1998). A review of comorbidity: Major mental illness and problematic substance use. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 707-717.
  • Teesson, M., Hall, W., Lynskey, M., Degenhardt, L. (2000). Alcohol- and drug-use disorders in Australia: Implications of the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34, 206-213. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.2000.00715.x
  • Teesson, M., Slade, T., & Mills, K. (2009). Comorbidity in Australia: Findings of the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43, 606-614.