What are the effects of drinking on mental health?

It depends on many complex factors, like how much you drink and your natural state of mind, and there are short and long-term effects to consider.

Illustration of a female head with a health sign

Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that affects your brain’s pathways and the chemicals directly involved in your actions and mood (1). In the short term, drinking moderately and occasionally can relax you. Many people enjoy drinking because it gives them pleasure and can enhance the experience of a social gathering (2).

However, as you drink more, alcohol’s intoxicating effects take over. Your positive mood can quickly turn sour, and you may become sad or depressed. Over the long term, drinking can have a lasting effect on your mental health (3). Some people may drink to relieve stress or anxiety and use alcohol to numb their emotions (4, 5). Over time, they may start drinking more heavily and need more alcohol to get the desired effect. But drinking excessively can make both stress and anxiety worse and cause additional mental health problems (6, 7).

Mental health conditions and Alcohol Use Disorder are closely related

Scientific studies show that excessive drinking is closely related to depression (6), anxiety (8), psychosis (9) and bipolar disorder (10) – and may also increase the risk of suicide (11). Many people who suffer from these disorders are heavy drinkers and may be diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), or dependence. In fact, AUD itself is considered a mental health condition and requires professional help (12).

Drinking while taking medication can have a dangerous impact on your mental health

Illustration of a range of medication

Many people who have mental health issues take medication to stabilise their moods and behaviour. Alcohol can interact with these and other medications, so people taking them are generally advised not to drink (13, 14). Similarly, people who use amphetamine or opioids, or are taking illicit drugs, should avoid drinking too (15). The interaction between alcohol and drugs, whether legal or not, can change or exacerbate the effects of both and can even result in death.

Drinking to ‘self-medicate’ and change your mood is never a good idea. If you’re having difficulty coping with a mental health issue, it’s best to seek professional assistance – helplines and other resources are also available. Similarly, if you have concerns about your own or others’ drinking and its impact on mental health, a health professional can help to determine your level of risk and the most appropriate interventions or treatments.

Are you concerned about the effects of drinking?