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Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness or Chronic Disease?

cartoon man suffering from alcoholism, crying in a chair with empty bottles

Alcoholism is a complex condition with biological, genetical, psychological, and social components that can occur due to both genetic and environmental factors. Many people are unsure whether alcoholism is considered a chronic disease, a mental illness, or both. 

In this article, we will answer the question — Is alcohol misuse a mental illness or chronic disease? We will also talk about how to recognize alcohol abuse and offer some tips on seeking addiction treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. 

Alcoholism vs alcohol use disorder—what’s the difference?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the proper term for a condition in which there is an inability to control alcohol use despite a negative impact on health and other aspects of a person’s life. 

The term alcohol use disorder (AUD) includes the colloquial term alcoholism and other terms like alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and alcohol addiction. 

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a broader term that includes drug abuse and alcohol abuse. SUD and AUD are behavioral health conditions that can benefit from treatment by addiction medicine experts.

Is alcoholism a mental health disorder?

Yes, alcoholism is a mental illness. It has been recognized as a mental illness since the 1980s, when the American Psychiatric Association identified alcoholism as a primary mental health disorder. Interestingly, the American Medical Association recognized alcoholism as a disease as early as the 1950s.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is an authoritative guide that mental health professionals in the US use to diagnose mental health disorders. 

What makes alcoholism a mental illness? Mental illnesses are disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Alcohol affects the pleasure, reward, and motivation centers in the human brain. Excessive alcohol use alters brain chemistry and leads to physical, psychological, and social dysfunction. 

It is worth noting that alcohol use disorders often occur together with other mental health conditions. Common co-occurring disorders found in people with alcoholism include major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.

Is alcoholism a chronic disease?

Yes, alcoholism is a chronic disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), the most common chronic diseases in the US are hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, pulmonary conditions, and mental illnesses. As mentioned above, substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder are mental disorders, and therefore alcoholism is among some of the most common chronic conditions in the US.

Features of alcohol use disorder that are common with other chronic diseases include:

  • Like chronic diseases, alcohol abuse develops gradually over a period of time.
  • Alcohol use disorder is not contagious.
  • Substance abuse, including alcohol abuse, does not go away without alcohol treatment. 
  • Excessive alcohol intake tends to worsen over time without addiction treatment and can lead to other health complications and even death.
  • Substance use disorders like alcoholism can lead to progressive disability, just like chronic diseases. 
  • A mental disorder like alcoholism can be managed with addiction treatment, but there is no cure.

Social drinking vs excessive alcohol use—how to tell the difference?

Alcoholism is a substance use disorder that develops gradually over time. It can be difficult to pinpoint when social drinking progresses into problematic alcohol abuse. Licensed medical professionals use criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to find out whether a person has alcohol use disorder and determine its severity. 

The following 11 questions can help determine whether you have alcohol use disorder (answer yes or no):

  1. Do you end up drinking more or for longer than planned?
  2. Have you tried to quit drinking and failed?
  3. Do you spend a lot of time drinking or dealing with the after-effects of alcohol?
  4. Do you experience intense cravings for alcohol?
  5. Is drinking alcohol interfering with your ability to perform at your job or take care of your family?
  6. Has drinking led to problems in your relationships?
  7. Have you cut back or given up previously enjoyed activities to drink?
  8. Have you put yourself or others in danger under the influence of alcohol? 
  9. Do you continue to drink even though it’s causing physical and/or mental health problems? 
  10. Do you find that over time, you need more drinks to get the same effects?
  11. Do you experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, restlessness, and trouble sleeping when the effects of alcohol wear off?

Whether alcohol use disorder is mild, moderate, or severe is based on the number of questions answered with a yes. If you said yes to 2-3 questions, it is likely mild AUD, 4-5 questions answered yes is moderate AUD, and 6 or more questions answered yes is severe AUD. 

Always get professional medical advice from a mental health professional or other qualified healthcare providers for mental symptoms of substance use disorders. Healthcare providers can guide you to advanced recovery systems and programs that can help you overcome alcoholism, which is a chronic mental health condition

How do doctors treat mental health disorders like alcoholism?

Medical treatment of drug addictions and alcoholism involves several evidence-based approaches. Treatment centers develop a customized plan for each patient depending on the severity of the alcohol use disorder and the presence of another co-occurring disorder. Environmental factors influencing alcoholism are also taken into account. Addiction treatment is therefore highly individualized. 

Alcohol treatment is available in many formats, including inpatient and outpatient programs. A qualified admissions representative can help you identify the right kind of alcohol treatment.

Behavioral therapy, also called talk therapy or alcohol counseling, is recognized by the medical community as one of the most effective methods of alcohol rehab. These alcohol treatments help to change drinking behaviors.

  • Medications are available to help a person with alcohol addiction consume alcohol less often or stop altogether. Medications can also help to prevent relapse in someone who does not drink alcohol any longer. 
  • Support groups can play an important role in helping a person reduce or stop drinking. 

Warning: People with severe alcohol use disorder should not attempt to quit drinking cold turkey at home without medical supervision as they may experience potentially life-threatening alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If you have been drinking heavily for a long time, doctors can prescribe medications to make the alcohol withdrawal process safer and easier

Is alcoholism curable?

Many people with alcohol use disorder do recover with behavioral therapies, medications, or a combination of the two. However, it is common to suffer setbacks or relapses during substance abuse treatment. Seeking professional treatment for substance use disorders like alcoholism can help to prevent relapses and ensure long-term recovery. It’s also important to get treated for co-occurring disorders simultaneously. 


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder