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Can heavy alcohol use cause mental disorders?

Yes, excessive alcohol use can cause or worsen a variety of physical, mental, and social problems.  Alcohol is the most widely accepted psychoactive substance humans use to alter their consciousness, and it is the most dangerous.  Alcohol is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that has snuck into the lives of many Americans under the guise of social acceptability. The impact of extreme alcohol use, referred to as “alcoholism” or “addiction” by the surgeon general; can be felt by the individual struggling as well as their family, friends, colleagues, and the community.  Mental disorders can arise within the person using, as well as those impacted by their use.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The World Health Organization constitution

A person does not need to meet the criteria for a mental disorder diagnosis in order to experience impairment, pain, or suffering.  Some may experience sub-clinical symptoms or traits of substance use, mood, personality, and/or psychotic disorders. Even though they do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis they may experience impairment in their physical, mental, and/or social well-being.

Mental Health & Wellbeing

“Severe problematic use also contributes to disinhibition and feelings of sadness and irritability, which contribute to suicide attempts and completed suicide.” (DSM5, 2013, p.496)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is what is currently used in the United States to diagnose mental disorders.  This manual is a collection of diagnoses and the criteria that need to be met to make a clinical diagnosis.

According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016), the following are individual risk factors

  •      Current mental disorders
  •      Low involvement in school
  •      A history of abuse and neglect
  •      History of substance use during adolescence

Criteria for being diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder requires significant impairment or distress manifested by at least two of eleven different symptoms.  These symptoms include frequently drinking more than was originally intended, failure to fulfill major role obligations, intense cravings for alcohol, and continued use despite problems arising from excessive use.

Mental Disorders associated with an increased rate of alcohol use:

  •      Bipolar Disorders
  •      Schizophrenia
  •      Antisocial Personality Disorder
  •      Anxiety Disorders
  •      Depressive Disorders

Alcohol can be used as a salve for old wounds. In more clinical terms; some people deal with the symptoms of untreated mental health disorders by drinking alcohol. Initially, alcohol use in the interest of coping with suffering may bring more benefits than consequences, which reinforces this behavior.  With increased use over time, some people begin to experience more problems than benefits. For example, someone who struggles with symptoms of social anxiety may use alcohol to calm themselves when at parties or other social events.

Repeatedly consuming high doses of alcohol can make existing mental disorders worse.  Returning to the previous example of social anxiety, a person who is desperate for connection yet terrified of taking social risks may withdraw from their community.  Withdrawal and social isolation can bring up feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is painful, and alcohol is a seductive companion.

Once conditioned to respond to suffering with alcohol use, it is difficult to start integrating more effective methods of coping with stress.

Physical Health & Wellbeing

It is important to consider the plethora of medical problems that can also arise from the excessive consumption of alcohol.  When coping with chronic health problems various mental disorders can arise from the stress from these health problems.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), excessive alcohol use can lead to:

  •      High blood pressure
  •      Heart disease
  •      Stroke
  •      Liver disease
  •      Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon

Not only is our physical health at risk when we use alcohol in excess; the safety of our community is compromised.

“It is estimated that one in five intensive care unit admissions in some urban hospitals is related to alcohol and that 40% of individuals in the United States experience an alcohol-related adverse event at some time in their lives, with alcohol accounting for 55% of fatal driving events.” (DSM5, 2013, p.496)

“Alcohol intoxication contributes to the more than 30,000 alcohol-related drinking deaths in the United States each year.” (DSM5, 2013, pg 499)

When those who use alcohol cause a fatal car accident while under the influence of psychoactive substances they often feel a heavy weight of guilt and shame that can complicate their responsiveness to treatment efforts.  Sometimes they feel they don’t even deserve recovery.

Social Health & Wellbeing

According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016) community level risk factors for problems related to substance use are:

  •      Low parental monitoring
  •      A family history of substance use or mental disorders
  •      High levels of family conflict or violence

The American young adult’s rite of passage into “adulting” is marked by binge drinking in a dive bar on their 21st birthday. In the United States, problematic alcohol use is most common among 18 to 29-year-old men.  This may reflect a lack of well-being among young American men that demands that we reflect as a society on how we socialize young men and prepare them for adulthood.

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