Addiction and Mental Health Issues are Highly Linked

Gillian May
Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I’m interested in understanding the roots of addiction and the issues linked to alcohol use. One thing that struck me hard when I quit drinking was how my mental health monumentally improved. For most of my young adult years, I had been depressed and anxious and had tried several medications to help me, but they rarely worked. But once I quit drinking, I felt noticeably better within about a year.

It turns out that alcohol abuse and mental health issues are highly linked.I was so curious about this phenomenon that I consulted experts and research to learn more about the relationship between alcohol and mental health.

According to research, 50% of people with serious mental health issues also abuse substances like alcohol. Furthermore, having both these conditions is like adding gasoline to a fire; they make eachother much worse.

Alcohol in particular acts upon parts of the brain that are also linked to depression and anxiety. Alcohol withdrawal itself can bring on serious anxiety and possible psychosis. It can be hard to know what comes first, the mental illness or the alcohol. People may use alcohol for relief from mental illness, but also the abuse of alcohol can actually cause mental illness symptoms.

Unfortunately, since alcohol provides some initial relief, it can be tempting to continue using alcohol. For some people in difficult circumstances who don’t have the resources to get sober, using alcohol may be the only pleasure and relief they have in life, despite the fact that it worsens mental health issues.

Even for those who do have resources, the temporary relief from alcohol use can hijack the brain into using more and more alcohol. Once the brain gets used to alcohol, it may become accustomed to abusing it. As research has shown, people with mental health issues are especially more vulnerable to their brains getting accustomed to substance abuse.

Alcohol use and mental illness can become a deadly spiral where each feeds on eachother causing worsening symptoms that actually further fuel the alcohol use and mental illness. This leads to declining health, disability, and puts people at risk for suicide.

The other aspect of this issue that people may not know is that using alcohol while taking medications for mental health issues can render the medicine ineffective. Certain mental health medications when combined with alcohol can decrease their functioning. This means that the person doesn’t receive any therapeutic effect from the medicine. Looking back now, I wonder if this is why I didn’t receive any relief from my depression medications when I was abusing alcohol at the same time.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of treatment options that look into both mental health and alcohol abuse simultaneously. Some mental health facilities have treatment programs for dual diagnosis, (co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issue) but they have very long waiting lists, lack funding, and are only for people with the most serious issues. However, family doctors can go a long way in helping to improve the lives of people with both mental health and substance use issues. They can help with reducing or quitting alcohol as well as treating mental illness. They can also refer to specialists and psychiatrists to help improve symptoms of both problems.

Generally, experts recommend treating the substance use issue first before treating the mental health issue. But it depends on the severity of each problem. Often, the treatment tries to address both issues at the same time since they exacerbate each other. But it can be a very challenging issue and the success rates are not very high.

Unfortunately, both mental illness and substance abuse are highly complex conditions that have a variety of root causes. It’s difficult to pin down the exact treatment process because each person is so different. Often, combined mental illness and alcohol abuse requires a few treatment approaches with multiple specialists in order to treat each issue effectively.

The more that people understand these issues, the better they can make informed choices about getting diagnosed and treated for mental illness and alcohol abuse. The truth is, mental illness and alcohol abuse can be a deadly combination and this issue is not getting near enough the attention that it deserves.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work -


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