Alcohol use disorders often coexist with psychiatric disorders
Alcohol use disorders (AUD) often coexist with, contribute to, or result from many different psychiatric disorders.1 Because AUD can mimic and complicate many mental health disorders, AUD leads to challenges in diagnoses for psychiatric complaints.
Heavy alcohol use directly affects brain function and may manifest as a broad range of psychiatric symptoms. Common mental health symptoms of AUD include depression and anxiety.
In addition, patients diagnosed with mental health disorders are more likely to use a high amount of mental health services, have difficulties decreasing alcohol consumption, and struggle with suicidal ideation or attempts.
Common co-occurring mental health conditions include depressive disorders, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders.
AUD and depressive disorders are among the most prevalent co-occuring disorders. Depressive disorders are the most common comorbid mental health conditions with AUD. People with AUD are 2 to 3 times more likely to have depression. People with alcohol dependence are more likely to have a depressive disorder than those with alcohol abuse.
Co-occurring AUD and depressive disorders disproportionately affect women, as these disorders are two times more likely to occur in women than in men. Racial and ethnic minorities also encounter systemic disadvantages. For instance, Black and Latino people are significantly less likely to receive integrated mental health and substance use treatment than other races and ethnicities.
Research suggests that AUD is equally as likely to precede depression as well as for depression to precede AUD. In addition, having one increases the risk of having the other. Though the etiology of these disorders is not fully known, studies have identified some evidence of genetic predisposition or dysfunction in reward and stress systems of the brain.
Up to half of patients receiving treatment for AUD meet the criteria for one or more anxiety disorders. Data shows that patients with anxiety disorders have poorer outcomes in treatment for alcohol use. Conventional treatment for anxiety (antidepressants and behavioral therapy) do not appear to reduce AUD. This suggests that co-occurring anxiety and AUD benefits from being treated separately but simultaneously.
In addition, patients with an anxiety disorder or AUD experience an increased risk in developing the other disorder. Trauma, chronic stress, and other inheritable traits are associated with the dysfunction in stress‑response systems present in AUD and anxiety disorders.
The prevalence of schizophrenia is about 1% of the population; however, patients with schizophrenia are at a three times greater risk for AUD. Between 25% to 36% of patients with schizophrenia meet the criteria for AUD. Schizophrenia has a strong genetic risk factor, and a large genome-wide study revealed a significant genetic correlation between schizophrenia and AUD.
There are several theories as to why AUD is so highly prevalent in patients with schizophrenia:
- A combination of neurobiological vulnerability (genetic risk) and environmental vulnerability (poverty, homelessness, trauma, etc.)
- The concept of self-medication, suggesting people with schizophrenia turn to alcohol for relief from their psychiatric symptoms
- Similar to depressive disorders, the hypothesis that both schizophrenia and AUD are related to a dysregulation of the reward system in the brain
Bipolar disorder is the most likely psychiatric disorder to have a co‑occurring condition with a substance use disorder (SUD). Estimates for a lifetime co‑occurring bipolar disorder and AUD is between 40% to 70%. These co-occurring disorders are most common in women.
Bipolar disorder occurs in between 1.5% to 5% of the population. Like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder has a shared genetic predisposition with AUD. Heavy alcohol use worsens symptoms of bipolar disorder and can trigger episodes of mania and depression. Conversely, these episodes can lead to increased alcohol consumption. Treatment for bipolar disorder often assists in treatment for co‑occurring AUD. Mood stabilizers used to treat bipolar disorder have been shown to reduce alcohol cravings in patients with bipolar disorder.
Alcohol (and other substances) are likely triggers for the onset of bipolar disorders. In one study, substance use preceded 60% of first manic episodes.6 In juvenile cases, bipolar onset early in life is correlated with AUD development as an adult.
What if I need assistance?
If you need assistance connecting your patients to mental health or AUD treatment, contact Empire BlueCross BlueShield HealthPlus Provider Services at 800-450-8753.
November 2022 Newsletter