Alcoholism is absolutely a mental illness, and so is drug addiction.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that alcoholism is defined as a mental illness by just about any doctor you’ll talk to (and is also defined that way in medical literature), a simple thought experiment will show us that yes, alcoholism is a mental illness.
What Is a Mental Illness?
A mental illness is a disease or disorder of the mind. It doesn’t show itself outwardly—people like me don’t have visible signs of our disability—but rather it shows up inwardly (until things get bad).
A disorder/disease of the mind is something that makes the mind break—it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
For example, with Major Depressive Disorder, the mind tells itself that it’s sad and that life isn’t worth living despite evidence to the contrary. And even when life is actually bad, it ignores the possibility that life might get better.
If alcoholism weren’t a mental illness, it would just be a choice, right? Someone chooses to ruin their life with drinking.
Let’s set aside the absurdity of that for a moment and ask ourselves how we could be sure if something is an illness.
What Is an Illness?
According to our friend Google, a disease is, “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.”
The highlighted portions are important here. The first part alone is enough to see that alcoholism is an illness.
Alcoholism absolutely has specific signs or symptoms. Even people who have never dealt with an alcoholic before know instantly when they see one. It’s not just that the person drinks too much (although that’s a big part of it)—it’s that they drink too much consistently.
Those are specific symptoms, yet among alcoholics, they’re universal. If you have a friend who gets wasted once a year but drinks normally for the rest of the year, you probably aren’t going to wonder if they’re an alcoholic.
But if they’re getting wasted every weekend, you’re going to start to wonder.
If alcoholism wasn’t a disease, then we wouldn’t see this exact same symptom showing up over and over in every alcoholic because this symptom implies something—a lack of control.
If it was just a choice, you would see the alcoholic exhibit control whenever they wanted to. You could easily test them, especially after they got some sort of consequence.
You could say, “Hey, you just got a DUI—why don’t you just not get wasted for like, six months, and see how you feel.”
If alcoholism wasn’t a disease, they could just do that if they wanted to, right? They wouldn’t have to quit—they’d just have to drink a little bit when they drink.
Do you really think people who get DUIs don’t want to drink normally and still have a good time? Sure, you might be able to drink normally and have a good time, but if they don’t enjoy themselves unless they’re plastered, then it starts to look bad, right?
You have to wonder where the choice is in that.
According to the DSM-V, Alcoholism Is a Mental Illness
If we want to get technical about it, we can look at what the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has to say about alcoholism.
There are multiple levels of alcohol abuse and dependence. An alcoholic falls into the dependence category.
By just being listed in the DSM, alcoholism is by definition a mental illness.
What’s great about the way the DSM defines alcoholism as a mental illness is that it goes through a series of questions that can help you determine if you’re an alcoholic or not.