Mental health and dependence

There is no a priori reason why people with mental disorders are more likely than others to abuse or be dependent on alcohol. Nor why the opposite is true, for that matter. Each person is a unique individual in specific circumstances, the result of a complex interaction between genetic and biological factors, personality and social environment.

Nonetheless, some experts continue working to formulate theories about the strong relationship between mental illness and problem drinking.


One theory concerns the particular personality traits, hereditary genetics, social factors and other characteristics of people with mental disorders, which may predispose them to abuse or become dependent on alcohol. Some experts even suggest that the neurological basis of mental illness may be very similar to that of alcohol dependence.


Another theory holds that people with mental illness are more sensitive than others to the harmful effects of psychoactive substances. Thus, all other things being equal, the same amount of alcohol will have a stronger effect on the person with a mental disorder.

Self- medication

It is often observed that people with mental disorders drink alcohol for its soothing properties, in an attempt to make themselves feel better. This practise is known as self-medication, and it is the third main theory that seeks to explain the link between mental health and alcohol dependence.

People in distress take psychoactive substances to escape their pathological condition, or at the very least to attenuate the symptoms, which are neurobiological in origin. In other words, they do not self-medicate in order to remedy a mental disorder, but to combat the suffering, sadness, anger or agitation it causes.

Making things worse

Anyone who feels particularly anxious or depressed and is experiencing unusual symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, reduced focus, sleep disturbances or a need to withdraw socially, should be very careful and avoid alcohol completely. Alcohol can make people who are genetically predisposed to mental illness even more vulnerable.

When people experiencing the warning signs of mental disorders take psychoactive substances such as alcohol, they are at greater risk of developing a mental illness. In fact, alcohol can alter a number of neurotransmitters, including glutamate, which is involved in schizophrenia.

Also, a genetic predisposition to certain personality disorders, such as impulsive disorder or attention deficit disorder—with or without hyperactivity—may be exacerbated if there was prenatal exposure to alcohol.

Adverse effects: mental illness and alcohol

Alcohol and sleep

Some people have difficulty falling asleep when they are stressed. They may turn to alcohol, thinking it will alleviate the problem. Alcohol can, of course, make a person drowsy. But it can also cause insomnia and frequent sleep interruptions, thus aggravating the original problem.

Alcohol affects the sleep cycle. People may feel tired and unwell the day after drinking a lot, even if they have slept enough. Because alcohol disrupts sleep, which is essential to mental health, anyone suffering from a mental disorder should keep drinking to a minimum.

Alcohol and medication

Even normal, non-abusive drinking can negatively affect recovery in people with mental disorders, especially if they take medication. People with mental disorders who take medication and drink at the same time are very likely to forget to take their meds.

Also, the alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of those medications, or the speed at which they are eliminated from the body.

Alcohol and suicide

Most people who commit suicide have some sort of mental health problem. American researchers even suggest that nine out of ten suicides have a recognized mental disorder.

The risk of suicide is 5.5 times higher among people who abuse or are dependent on alcohol than among others. It has also been shown that people with mental disorders who drink are at greater risk of suicide.

Alcohol and mental health