Alcohol and Mental Health

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Many people often reach for a drink because they want to change the way they feel. For others, drinking alcohol is nothing more than a pleasant way to relax, to celebrate or simply forget a bad day at work and unwind. However, of great concern is that many people drink to try and mask internalizing symptoms of depression and anxiety, or other mental health problems. Although alcohol can have a very temporary positive impact on our mood, in the long term problematic drinking can cause big problems for our mental health and it has been associated with a range of issues from depression to memory loss and suicidality.

According to the American Psychological Association, for most adults, moderate alcohol use, which is no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women, is relatively harmless. In fact, some research postulates that small amounts of alcohol may have beneficial cardiovascular effects. Nonetheless, there is a widespread agreement that heavier drinking can cause multiple health problems and substantial damage to individuals, their families, relationships, and the community.  

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report that 1 in 12 American adults is an alcohol abuser or have alcoholism. They reported that young adults aged 18-29 are the most likely to have alcohol problems and another survey illustrated that adults aged 18-25 engage in binge drinking.

Alcohol abuse vs. alcoholism

Alcohol abuse occurs when significant and recurrent adverse consequences follow. This is when people may fail to fulfill school, work, and family duties and have relationship problems. Legal problems also arise, such as repeated driving while intoxicated arrests.

Individuals with alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, have lost reliable control of their alcohol use and are unable to stop drinking once they start. This state is characterized by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms if drinking is suddenly ceased. These symptoms include nausea, sweating, restlessness, irritability, tremors, hallucinations and convulsions.

Causes of alcohol related disorders

The causes of problematic drinking behavior range from genetic, physiological, psychological and social factors. It is important to note that every individual is affected differently by each etiological factor. For instance, for some people, psychological traits like neuroticism, this includes impulsivity, low self-esteem, and need for approval prompt inappropriate drinking (APA, 2015). There are some individuals who consume alcohol in order to cope and end up “self-medicating” their emotional problems. Although certain symptoms do dissipate for the time being, they run the risk of being dependent on the substance and the symptoms will worsen over time. Genetic factors also make some individuals vulnerable to alcoholism and dependence. However, simply having a family history of alcohol problems does not mean that person will grow up to have same problems nor does the absence of family drinking problems necessarily protects children from developing alcohol problems. Additionally, social and environmental factors also play a role, such as, the availability of alcohol, peer pressure, poverty, and physical or sexual abuse, which can also increase the risk of alcohol dependency (APA, 2015).

Alcohol effects  

  • The short-term effect of alcohol includes memory loss, hangovers, and blackouts whereas the long-term effects are linked to heaving drinking include heart ailments, stomach problems, brain damage including memory loss and cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Alcohol is also a risk factor for homicide, suicide, and vehicular accidents.
  • Alcohol is a depressant. It alters one’s brain chemistry as an imbalance of neurotransmitter activity occurs thus affecting ones thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Drinking heavily can also affect relationships with partners, family, and fiends.
  • It can impact productivity and performance at work and school.
  • Alcohol can worsen existing conditions of depression and anxiety or induce new problems.
  • Family members are also affected by alcohol via family violence and children may suffer abuse and neglect and may develop psychological problems.
  • Women who are pregnant and drink alcohol run a serious risk of prenatal damage as the toxins can cause fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Loved ones and strangers can be injured or killed in alcohol-related accidents and assaults (APA, 2015).

Psychologists and mental health professionals who are trained and experienced in treating alcohol problems can be helpful in many ways. Utilizing one or more of the various psychological therapies, we can help people address the underlying psychological issues involved in problematic drinking. For instance, cognitive-behavioral coping skills and motivational enhancement therapy along with quality supplemental treatment like 12 step programs can help people increase their motivation to stop drinking, identify circumstances that trigger drinking and learn new methods of coping and develop a solid social support system. Please contact your local mental health provider for support. For immediate psychiatric emergency assistance please contact 1-877-289-7199 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).