Alcohol is Problematic for Mental Health

Gillian May

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I’ve been writing about my sobriety for a while now. I’m 6 years sober and have a unique background of being a former alcoholic and mental health/addictions nurse. I also struggled with depression. Lastly, I also lost my father to alcohol who also struggled with severe depression.

Naturally, all of this history gives me a rather interesting point of view.

In particular, I’m passionate about the effects of alcohol on mental health because, for one, it affected so much of my personal and professional life. And two, there’s not nearly enough discussion about it.

In my mental health nursing days, the effects of alcohol on the mental health trajectory of our inpatient population were not a priority. This made little sense considering the staggering evidence that alcohol is highly neurotoxic and causes psychiatric symptoms when a person is in withdrawal.

Let me be clear that this is not an issue that requires judgment. What we do need is communication coupled with compassion and a heavy dose of responsibility.

I think as alcoholics, we’re pretty good at beating ourselves up. For those who’ve been hurt by alcoholics, it’s easy to beat us up too. The fact is, alcohol beats all of us up. Nonetheless, it is a serious health issue that requires treatment, counseling, commitment, and compassion.

Recovery is not as simple as removing alcohol from our lives. The process afterward is the real mountain. Digging through trauma and learning how to “feel” again can be so overwhelming that many alcoholics relapse. For many of us, alcohol was the only medication we’ve ever known.

We can’t deny, that this, in and of itself, is partly a mental health issue. We use alcohol to numb our terrible feelings and traumas. This is an important piece of the puzzle — alcoholics abuse alcohol because they are self-medicating. Often they are medicating an underlying mental health issue in the first place.

To me, the rise in interest in the effects of alcohol on mental health is miraculous. Given that mental health issues are becoming so rampant, it’s high time we talk about this.

People want to know because they’ve all had experiences that made them seriously question their alcohol use and its effects on their neurological system. And the evidence is clear — alcohol is very neurotoxic. (see research references below)

In fact, the warm fuzzy feelings created by alcohol are due to its neurotoxic side effects. When consumed in large quantities, alcohol causes a complete shutdown of the nervous system, which is fatal. But even small amounts affect the nervous system in negative ways.

What really astounds me is the lack of general education around the role of alcohol in the development and worsening of mental health issues.

To be honest, it’s hard to know what comes first, the mental health issue or the alcohol.

In my mental health nursing days, we had programs dedicated to concurrent disorders, which refer to a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse disorder. But what confused me was that many patients outside of this program (for example, in the mood disorders unit) also used alcohol in varying quantities. Yet, it was not considered a treatment priority.

But what about the general public who suffer from mental health issues and use alcohol? I’m talking about the multitudes of people who don’t access help. We already know that those with mild depression and anxiety are more likely to abuse alcohol and other self-medicating substances.

But what if the general public doesn’t realize that alcohol could be causing their mental health issue in the first place? And if they already had a mental health issue, do they know that alcohol is making it so much worse?

If I, a mental health and addictions nurse, did not realize that alcohol caused and worsened my depression, then how can the general public know this?

We can change this. In fact, we’re doing it right now, by talking, reading, and writing about the issue.

We can raise awareness by talking face to face with each other as well as using social media and blogs to increase the discussion.

We don’t want to use judgment, we only want to increase awareness so that others don’t have to go through years of suffering. Remember, mental health issues have multiple causes. There are also people who struggle with mental health issues and who’ve never touched alcohol.

But for those with mental health issues who drink, they deserve to know more about how alcohol may be causing or worsening their condition. They also need to know that mixing alcohol with their mental health medications, renders the medications useless.

For more information on the facts surrounding alcohol and mental health issues, see the reference list below.

I know for me, it would have helped to hear about others who experienced worsening mental health issues while drinking alcohol. If I had known that, it may have helped put me on a better path much earlier.

Instead, it took decades of suffering for me to fully understand what alcohol was doing to my mental health. As for my father, he used alcohol to medicate his severe depression and died as a result.

So maybe we can speak up more in a compassionate attempt to tell our stories. Write, talk, tweet, blog, and create art that talks about this important issue.

After all, 792 million people worldwide struggle with a mental health issues, and 107 million have a serious alcohol use disorder. Those numbers don’t even reflect unreported mental health issues or alcohol use, which are predicted to be high.

The more we talk about this, the more we can help others who may be struggling without knowing the truth.

Here’s a reference list for facts used in this article as well as further education about alcohol and mental health.

Mental Health — Our World in Data
The Connection Between Anxiety and Alcohol
The Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health
Concurrent substance-related disorders and mental illness
A Prospective Assessment of Reports of Drinking to Self-medicate Mood Symptoms With the Incidence and Persistence of Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol and Medication Interactions

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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.

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