Alcohol Use and Its Effect on Mental Health

Alcohol interferes with the mechanism by which most medications used in treating mental illness work. Drinking alcohol typically nullifies the effects (if any) from psychotropic medications.

Alcohol use interferes with the process of learning and memory. This relationship is such that the more alcohol one uses the more the process is disrupted. Someone in a treatment program for mental illness or substance abuse drinks heavily will not process, encode, and retain information as well as if they did not drink at all.

Alcohol can be dangerous and even lethal when used in combination with certain medications such as anti-anxiety medications.

Alcohol use contributes to increased impulsivity in people. People with mental illness are at risk for acting impulsively and irrationally. Drinking alcohol makes this all the worse.

Heavy alcohol use leads to poor decision-making that can intensify guilt, shame, depression.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. What this means is that it dampens the firing of certain neurons in the brain. For people prone to depressive reactions alcohol use can actually intensify their depression and increase thoughts of self – harm.

Heavy alcohol use may initially reduce a person’s anxiety; however, it also leads to something known as rebound anxiety where the person will experience more anxious symptoms as they withdraw from alcohol use.

Alcohol use is known to increase recall for negative events such as traumatic experiences that occurred when one was using alcohol. This can lead to increased shame, depression, etc.

Regular alcohol use disrupts sleep patterns and REM sleep. Disrupting one’s sleep can lead to more issues with fatigue, anxiety, depression, etc.

Alcohol use is associated with other substance abuse, especially in individuals diagnosed with some form of mental health issue or mental illness. This can lead to more distressed, increased legal issues, and issues in recovery and treatment.

The bottom line is this: If you are diagnosed with a mental health issue do not drink alcohol at all unless you are instructed to do so by your physician, though the last situation mentioned would be very rare.


[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington DC: Author.

[2] Hatfield, R. C. (2013). The everything guide to the human brain. Avon, MA: Adams.


Dr. Hatfield is a clinical neuropsychologist with extensive experience assessing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders. His areas of expertise include neurobiology, behavior, dementia, head injury, addiction, abnormal psychology, personality disorders, statistics, rehabilitation psychology and research methodology.

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