The categorization of “alcoholism” has changed over time. Recognizing alcohol use disorder as a mental health condition facilitates more empathetic and effective treatment, including therapy and group support.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical and mental health condition, not a moral issue.

AUD was known as “alcoholism” until 1994, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) discarded that term in favor of “alcohol abuse” and “alcohol dependence.”

The organization updated the terminology again in 2013 to “alcohol use disorder,” which fits under the umbrella of substance use disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).

The APA no longer clinically use the terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” because they’re less accurate and contribute to stigma around the condition.

Read on to learn why AUD is considered a mental health condition, which mental health conditions commonly occur alongside it, and treatment options.

Around 14% of U.S. adults may have AUD.

The DSM-5-TR defines a mental health condition as a collection of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms caused by physical, mental, or developmental dysfunction.

Mental health conditions cause distress or setbacks socially, at work, and in other meaningful activities.

AUD makes it harder to process thoughts and regulate emotions and behaviors, leading to mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. As a result, AUD creates many obstacles and frustrations in day-to-day life.

The diagnostic criteria for AUD as a mental health condition include:

  • consistently drinking more alcohol than you meant to
  • multiple past attempts to cut back or quit
  • spending a lot of time buying alcohol, drinking, or recovering from hangovers
  • cravings, or urges to drink you can’t ignore
  • difficulties at work, school, or home caused by drinking
  • continuing to drink even though it’s negatively affecting your work, school, or home life
  • cutting back on work, relationships, or activities because of drinking
  • drinking in situations that place you at risk of bodily harm
  • continuing to drink even though alcohol is causing and magnifying physical or mental health problems
  • tolerance, or needing more alcohol to get the same effect
  • alcohol withdrawal symptoms

In addition to being a diagnosable mental health condition, AUD is also a medical disease.

As far back as 1933, the Standard Classified Nomenclature of Diseases listed alcoholism as a disease. Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and APA approved this classification.

But in 1956, the AMA officially designated alcoholism as a disease, meaning people should be hospitalized and treated for the condition. The AMA emphasized that in the case of alcoholism (as opposed to intoxication), the person did not have control over their alcohol use.

At that time, the AMA defined alcoholism as depending on alcohol to the point that it interferes with your:

  • physical health
  • mental health
  • relationships
  • ability to function in society

Some mental health conditions are more likely to co-occur, or exist alongside, AUD, such as:

In many cases, AUD increases the chances of having a co-occurring mental health condition. For example, AUD may triple your chances of experiencing major depressive disorder (MDD). The intoxication and withdrawal cycle can also cause MDD and other mental health concerns.

Research from 2019 suggests social support as well as building self-efficacy and a sense of meaning can help reduce rates of AUD recurrence, and mental health care often fills this role.

For people who also experience alcohol dependence, the first step in AUD treatment may involve medical support. Still, only a small number of people with AUD need medical care during this process.

Medical treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms might include:

The larger part of AUD treatment involves mental health and emotional support, with approaches including:

Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based method that can help people build motivation to reduce or abstain from alcohol. It’s effective because motivation and active participation are often key in AUD recovery.

Motivational interviewing goals include:

  • exploring and processing ambivalence about sobriety
  • offering empathy
  • fostering self-efficacy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most common types of therapy for AUD. CBT works by helping you explore how your thought patterns affect your reactions and behaviors so you can learn new ways of responding to emotions.

A 2020 review of research found that CBT allowed people with AUD to build coping and emotional regulation skills.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT could help people with AUD acknowledge and work through challenging emotions instead of blocking them out. It might help if you developed AUD by using alcohol to suppress painful emotions and memories.

Exploring your values and committing to a life path that is meaningful to you is also part of ACT, and this might help you avoid a recurrence.

Research from 2019 found ACT may help people who haven’t benefited from existing AUD treatments, but larger studies are needed to support its effectiveness.

Mindfulness-based therapy

Mindfulness-based approaches to therapy for AUD, including mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction, have been linked to:

  • more abstinence
  • lower levels of craving
  • reduced stress

Mindfulness may also help address depression and trauma conditions that co-occur with AUD.

Support groups

Twelve-step groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other support approaches, can provide solidarity and emotional support through AUD recovery.

A 2020 review found that 12-step groups could even be more effective at increasing abstinence rates than other forms of treatment.

Looking for support? Here are our top picks for AUD support groups.

AUD, once known as alcoholism, is a medical diagnosis and mental health condition.

As a mental health condition, AUD refers to alcohol use that feels distressing or beyond your control. Many mental health-centered treatments for AUD can help recovery, from motivational interviewing to mindfulness training.

If you think you might have AUD, support is available. You can search for an empathetic mental health professional using our Healthline FindCare tool to get more information and help finding the right treatment for you.