Alcohol use disorder (AUD), which people used to call alcoholism, is a medical condition in which a person can’t control or quit their use of alcohol.
AUD fits under the diagnostic category of substance use disorders and is classified as a mental health disorder.
Why Is Alcohol Use Disorder A Mental Health Disorder?
AUD is considered a mental health disorder because it affects a person’s ability to function cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.
Alcohol abuse can also damage the brain over time, making it harder to change patterns of alcohol misuse.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a little over 11% of adults and 3% of teens had AUD in 2021.
Is Alcohol Use Disorder Also A Disease?
Starting early in the last century and continuing through recent years, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have made changes to the classification of AUD and how it is referred to.
In medical nomenclature, AUD was first referred to as a disease as early as 1933. The AMA officially designated it as such in 1956.
In 1994, the APA switched from “alcoholism” to “alcohol dependence” (or abuse) as a way of referring to the condition. And in 2013, they replaced “alcohol dependence” with “alcohol use disorder.”
There is some disagreement over whether AUD should still be considered a chronic disease. Some rehab centers, for example, refer to alcohol addiction and addiction in general as a disease.
But the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, as well as the NIAAA and many other such organizations agree that AUD is a mental health disorder.
What Are The Symptoms Of Alcohol Use Disorder?
Like other substance use disorders, AUD has symptoms that are generally characterized by an inability to control use of the substance.
Symptoms of AUD can include:
- trying to cut down on alcohol but not being able to
- drinking more than intended
- drinking that interferes with work, school, or home responsibilities
- continuing to drink even though it leads to feelings of depression
- getting into potentially harmful situations because of drinking
Another feature of AUD is that it often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, creating a negative feedback loop regarding the person’s mental health.
In other words, the co-occurring mental health disorders interact in such a way that it is difficult to tell the two disorders of the dual diagnosis apart.
In this case, the person may use alcohol consumption as a way to self-medicate.
Co-occurring disorders or comorbidity with AUD can include:
- bipolar disorder
- anxiety disorders
- personality disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Who Is At Risk For Alcohol Use Disorder?
Risk factors for alcohol use disorder also point to the fact that AUD is a mental health condition. In general, people are at risk for AUD the greater the rate of how much, how often, and how quickly they consume alcohol.
Other risk factors include:
- drinking at an early age
- the presence of other mental health issues
- history of trauma
- history of childhood trauma
- family history
Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment
If you or a loved one have symptoms of AUD or have been diagnosed with AUD, there is hope for recovery, but it requires treatment.
Quality treatment programs for AUD can address many aspects of the condition as well as other mental health problems that may be affecting a person’s ability to take steps in addressing AUD.
Alcohol treatment often occurs at the inpatient level of care, but you can also find outpatient services for the condition.
If you are facing severe alcohol abuse, you should not quit using alcohol cold turkey. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and often require medical detox support.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:
- delirium tremens (DTs)
- high blood pressure
- fast heart rate
Medical detox helps people go through withdrawal safely so they can begin treatment.
Because alcohol affects the brain and often co-occurs with other mental health disorders, people seeking treatment may require psychiatric services.
Psychiatric treatment may include medications to address the co-occurring conditions or symptoms occurring as a result of long-term drinking.
These symptoms may include:
- sleep disturbances
- dysphoria (a state of unease)
Other treatment options for AUD may include medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
MAT involves the use of medications to help people control alcohol cravings so they can focus on addressing the behavioral health challenges that AUD presents.
Medications used to treat AUD may include:
Behavioral therapy is another major component of addiction treatment in general, and AUD is no exception.
Evidence-based treatment programs offer therapy at the individual and group levels.
Therapeutic modalities may include:
- family therapy
- motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
- motivational interviewing (MI)
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Finally, people who go through the treatment process for alcohol addiction will need support at a variety of levels.
Treatment centers often incorporate peer recovery support groups into their programs. These groups can be informal.
Support groups can also include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), SMART Recovery, and others.
Find Addiction Treatment Today
If you or a loved one are facing substance abuse, you can find treatment today. Call us to learn more about the recovery process and how to get started.
Published on August 21, 2023
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Alcohol Health and Research World — Alcohol-Use Disorder and Severe Mental Illness
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Mental Health
- Healthline — Is Alcohol Use Disorder a Mental Illness?
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — Alcohol’s Effects on Health
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — Mental Health Issues: Alcohol Use Disorder and Common Co-occurring Conditions
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) — Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Treatment
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders