Could your (or your family member's) alcohol addiction really be masking a wholly different disorder? 

It's entirely possible. This is what you need to know about dual diagnosis—when alcoholism (or any other substance abuse disorder) overlaps with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.

What causes a dual diagnosis of alcoholism and another mental disorder?

Many people don't realize that substance abuse—including alcoholism—often masks a mental disorder. In many cases, the alcoholic may have started down the road toward alcoholism in an attempt to "self-medicate." Absent any other intervention or an understanding of their own need for mental health treatment, people will try to do what they can to dull their own emotional pain. 

Alcoholism is particularly prevalent among people who have an anxiety disorder of some sort. All anxiety disorder share some common traits, including panic or irrational fear in different situations, self-consciousness to the point that it may be debilitating, and a host of other problems, including nausea and vomiting.

Alcohol helps dull an individual's nerves, repressing that anxiety—for a while. Eventually, it takes more alcohol as a person's tolerance builds to control the symptoms, and alcoholism can result. Similarly, alcohol is a depressant, so someone who takes it to relax and feel temporarily euphoric when suffering from depression can actually end up worse than where he or she started.

It's important to understand that alcoholism is a distinct condition separate from any mental disorder. While they're often related, a victim of both alcoholism and a mental disorder will have a dual diagnosis. It's important to treat both disorders at the same time because they feed on each other.

How can mental health counseling help with alcoholism?

It's important to understand that controlling alcoholism that's tied to a mental disorder isn't an issue of will-power. Victims of a dual diagnosis can benefit from counseling that addresses the alcoholism in several ways:

Alcoholism has the unfortunate side-effect of impairing judgment, so legal issues often arise. Treatment can convince a judge to give the victim a chance to overcome the addiction and get his or her life on track rather than just throwing the individual in jail for an alcohol-related crime.

Therapy can help the alcoholic cope with cravings and triggers. A therapist can teach a patient how to manage social situations without resorting to alcohol. Therapy can also make an alcoholic aware of triggers that he or she didn't even know existed.

Joint therapy with family members, like a spouse or children, can help the relatives understand alcohol as a disease—and the patient's dual diagnosis. That may go a long way toward mending emotional wounds caused by past alcoholic capers. Plus family members can see that the patient is trying to break the cycle of behavior he or she has been caught inside.

For those without family, those whose family relationships have totally broken down, or those whose families are actually part of the reason he or she developed depression or anxiety, counseling provides both companionship and a safe outlet for his or her feelings.

The odds of someone escaping alcoholism "cold turkey" are small, despite the fact that everyone seems to know a guy who supposedly did it. Counseling can help an alcoholic unravel the problems with a dual diagnosis, provide a safety net, help with legal trouble, and cope with cravings and triggers—making it well-worth the time and investment.

Contact a treatment center like Eastside Center for Family for more information on alcohol treatments.