Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

Apr 2023 Is Addiction a Mental Illness?

Is addiction a mental illness? Is alcoholism a mental illness? What about the compulsive use of heroin, prescription painkillers, or benzodiazepines? Are mental illnesses limited to disorders that affect a person’s mood and emotions, or can they also involve urges to engage in destructive behaviors such as substance abuse?

If you have been seeking answers to questions like these, today’s post is for you.

Definition of Mental Illness

To answer the question, “Is addiction a mental illness,” it is important to understand the diagnostic parameters that define mental illnesses in general. 

Here’s how mental illness is defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the standard reference for clinicians in the United States:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities.”

In other words:

  • Mental illnesses involve a series of symptoms that affect how a person thinks, feels, and acts.
  • These effects are due to abnormal functioning in a person’s body or mind, and/or a problem in their development.
  • The effects of mental illnesses include undermining a person’s ability to live a full and satisfying life.

Now that we have established this definition, we can move on to answering the question that we asked in the headline for this post.

Is Addiction Considered a Mental Illness?

Is addiction or alcoholism a mental illness?

The answer to both of these questions is yes.

Substance use disorder (which is the clinical term for addiction) and alcohol use disorder (the clinical term for alcoholism) are both included in the DSM-5.

Also, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes substance use disorder as “a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior.”

One of the reasons why questions like “Is addiction a mental illness?” and “Is alcoholism a mental illness?” persist may involve terminology. It’s common to see alcoholism and other forms of addiction referred to as behavioral health disorders instead of mental illnesses. 

Substance use disorders, process addictions (such as gambling and sex/love addiction), and eating disorders are sometimes grouped into the category of behavioral health disorders. This is because these disorders affect how a person acts. Other categories under the umbrella of mental illness include mood disorders (such as anxiety and depression) that impact a person’s emotions and psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder) that disrupt a person’s ability to perceive and interact with their environment.

At first, the different terms and categories may be a bit confusing – but it can help to remember that a disorder can belong to two categories at the same time. For example, addiction and alcoholism are both mental illnesses, and they are also both behavioral health disorders. 

Woman helping friend who is wondering if her addiction is also a mental illness

Similarities Between Addiction Treatment and Mental Health Treatment

Treatment for alcoholism and other types of addiction shares many similarities with treatment for anxiety, depression, and other common mental health disorders. 

First, both addiction and mental health treatment may occur at the following levels of care:

Some people may receive care at multiple levels. For example, they may begin with residential treatment, then step down to a PHP or IOP for additional support as they prepare to transition out of care. Others enter and exit treatment at the same level. 

If you’re seeking treatment for addiction or mental illness, there is no “right” progression through the various levels of care. What’s most important is getting the type of help that aligns most closely with your needs and goals. 

A second similarity between addiction treatment and mental health treatment is that both may involve the use of prescription medications.

  • In the case of addiction treatment, some medications may ease the distress of withdrawal, while others can minimize cravings. These medications can make it a bit easier for a person to end their substance abuse and remain in recovery.
  • In mental health treatment, prescription medications may be employed to alleviate the symptoms that have disrupted the individual’s life. Medications can help with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and many other mental illnesses.

A third similarity between receiving care for addiction and receiving care for another mental illness is that therapy typically plays a major role in both circumstances. 

The specific focus of a therapy session can be influenced by several factors. But, in general terms, people who have been struggling with addiction and mental illness can reap the following benefits from therapy:

  • Gaining vital information about the disorder they have been living with.
  • Learning about the treatment and recovery process.
  • Identifying triggers, which are circumstances or situations that can prompt the onset of urges and other symptoms.
  • Developing skills and strategies to help manage compulsions and other symptoms.
  • Sharing support with others who have experienced similar challenges and who are working toward a common goal.

The following are examples of the types of therapies that may be included in treatment for addiction or mental illness:

  • Individual, group, and family therapy 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Holistic therapy
  • Reality therapy

Contact Our Dual Diagnosis Treatment Facility in Palm Springs, CA

Clinicians use the term dual diagnosis to describe the simultaneous presence of addiction and another mental illness. If you have been struggling with these conditions, Phoenix Rising Recovery is here for you. Our dual diagnosis treatment center in Palm Springs, California, is a safe and supportive place. Here you can receive customized care from a team of skilled professionals. 

To learn more about our addiction and mental health treatment services, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call us today.