Reading Time: 5 minutes


Alcoholism is a condition that can seriously affect both the person drinking excessively, but also those around that person.

What is alcohol misuse?

According to the NHS, alcohol misuse means drinking excessively. Alcohol consumption is measured in units, where a unit is 10ml of pure alcohol. A Unit is equivalent to:

A half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
– A single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
– A small glass (125ml) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.

You are likely to be misusing alcohol if you:

  • Regularly or frequently (most days of the week) drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week
  • Regularly or frequently drink 14 units or more a week on a weekend
  • Do not have any alcohol-free days

Is alcohol misuse a mental illness?

Alcohol misuse in itself is not a mental illness. However, people often use alcohol to cope with complicated feelings, situations, or memories, such as grief, stress, a relationship break-up, or childhood abuse.

In clinical practice, we often find that people are unaware that they use alcohol to control their emotions. Suppose the emotional problems are not addressed more helpfully. In that case, alcohol abuse could develop into a mental illness like alcoholism and addiction, depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although alcohol can feel like it’s taking ‘the edge off’ things in the short term, drinking excessively for a long time can lead to alcoholism, create significant problems at work and with close relationships – overall making your mental health worse.

What causes alcohol misuse?

There are many causes of alcohol misuse, and it usually is several various factors. These include:

  • Mental health problems or emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder.
  • High levels of stress.
  • Having low self-esteem or self-worth.
  • Difficulties in your personal and work life.
  • Personality factors include being extremely shy, being someone who pursues or disregards risk (risk-taker), or being more impulsive.
  • A long history of using alcohol or drinking much alcohol. Alcohol rewires the brain so that you crave it and start depending on it.
  • Genes – if your biological parents have been alcoholics, you are also more likely to develop alcohol problems.
  • Environment – if heavy drinking is widely accepted within your family and your social circle, or you live in a country that alcohol is cheap and easy to buy.
  • Age – starting to drink in your teens.

Symptoms of alcoholism

You don’t have to drink uncontrollably to have a problem with your drinking. If you are misusing alcohol, you probably still have some ability to set limits on your drinking. However, even with these boundaries in place, your alcohol use can be self-destructive and dangerous to you and those around you.

Common symptoms of alcohol misuse include:

  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of drinking.
  • Using alcohol in situations where it is physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving.
  • Experiencing repeated legal problems because of your drinking, for example, getting arrested for driving under the influence or for drunk and disorderly conduct.
  • You are worried about your drinking and feel you should cut down on it.
  • Other people have been suggesting that you drink too much.
  • You feel guilty or bad about your drinking.
  • You need a drink first thing in the morning to ‘steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover.

Treatment for alcoholism

There are a number of treatments available to help you stop or reduce drinking. These range from short- to long-term psychotherapy and depend on the severity of your drinking problems. Below is a list of the most common treatments:

  • Talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), focus on how thoughts and beliefs about how alcohol impacts drinking behaviours. CBT can also help you identify triggers to your drinking, which can help alcoholics on their journey to recovery.
  • Brief Interventions (BI) lasts about 5 to 10 minutes and covers risks associated with your pattern of drinking, advice about reducing drinking amounts, alcohol support networks available to you, and any emotional issues around your drinking. This is typically the type of intervention one can get from an informed GP. You may also be asked to keep a ‘Drinking Diary’.
  • Family Therapy provides family members with the opportunity to learn about the nature of alcohol dependence and how best to support those in need.
  • Drinking Diary is a task aimed at those who try to moderate their drinking via tracking behaviour.
  • Self-help, including online resources, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Medication is recommended for those diagnosed with moderate and severe alcohol dependence and undergoing detoxification (detox), a gradual and carefully planned withdrawal from alcohol. However, medication can also be offered to someone with mild alcohol problems if talking therapy on its own is not helpful.

Can I recover from alcoholism?

Yes, many people have recovered from alcohol misuse. However, recovering from alcohol misuse often involves changes in lifestyle and could include accepting a life without alcohol.

Many who start down the road of recovery find that they may fall off the wagon occasionally. This is usually part of the journey, but it is vital not to become disheartened if this happens.