Alcohol - Mental Health

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  1. Third-leading cause of preventable death
    1. Most Americans drink alcohol and over 25% consume it in harmful ways, making alcohol misuse the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
  2. Increased suicide risk, not enough in treatment
    1. Alcohol consumption can cause or worsen mental health conditions and increase the risk of suicide. Of the 14 million Americans that have alcohol use disorder, almost half don’t seek treatment.
  3. Avoid depicting misuse in storytelling
    1. Consider portraying alcohol usage in a way that doesn’t encourage misuse using the tips below.

Storytelling Tips

Diversify Representation
  • Show how alcohol consumption affects communities that are underrepresented in entertainment media. 
  • We most frequently see white adult males drinking or struggling with alcohol use disorder in television and films. While males do have a higher prevalence of drinking problems and are more likely to die as a result of alcohol consumption, there are many other stories to tell. 
  • For instance, American Indians and Alaskan Natives have high rates of alcohol use disorder. At the same time, they also have the highest rates of abstinence from alcohol. When highlighting the experiences of marginalized communities, it’s important to emphasize resilience in addition to the struggle. 
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
  • Work with an expert advisor to accurately and safely depict different alcohol use disorder treatment approaches. 
  • Inpatient treatment facilities of varying degrees of quality and effectiveness are a common setting in films and television shows where characters are treated for alcohol use disorder, but there are other treatment options it would be helpful for viewers to be aware of. 
Highlight the Power of Coping Skills and Self-Care
  • Avoid implying that excessive drinking is an effective coping strategy. 
  • Stories in entertainment media sometimes use “a night out drinking” as a way for friends to comfort or support someone who is getting over a breakup or dealing with another difficult situation. 
  • While drinking might distract a character from their problems for part of a night, it rarely improves the situation overall. In fact, depression, anxiety, and anger can worsen after drinking.
Move Past Stereotypes
  • Explore ways to establish a character’s personality, lifestyle, or economic status that do not rely on alcohol. 
  • People in real life who drink heavily on a regular basis deal with a range of consequences, including trouble getting quality sleep, hangovers, financial problems, and relationship conflict. If you’re exploring characters that drink regularly, look for opportunities to show their struggle to balance those drinking behaviors and their routine, workload, and relationships.
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details


An alcoholic drink contains the drug ethanol, which is a type of alcohol that comes from fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar. The consumption of alcohol plays an important social role in many cultures. Drinking is often portrayed in television and films as an integral part of social events, a tradition in family and cultural rituals, and a way to unwind and blow off steam.

Alcohol is also considered by many experts to be the most harmful drug — causing more health damage, mental impairment and injury than illegal drugs like cocaine, crack, and heroin.

There is also significant evidence about the harm alcohol can cause to our mental health. It can make individuals feel more anxious or sad, worsen mental health conditions like depression, and is associated with an increased risk for negative outcomes like suicide.

Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans does not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD — the clinical terminology for a “drinking problem”) is sometimes defined as consuming more than 14 drinks a week. It’s also defined by drinking patterns that impact our work, school, relationships, or quality of life, or reaching a point where we no longer have control over our drinking.

The short-term impact of AUD can include memory loss, blackouts, and hangovers. More serious long-term health impacts include stomach problems, heart problems, cancer, brain damage, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis (scarring on the liver).

Facts and Stats

86% of Americans over 18 report that they have consumed alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70% have drunk in the past year; 55.3% have drunk in the past month.
26% of people aged 18 or older report binge drinking in the past month; 7% report engaging in heavy alcohol use over the last month.
14.4 million American adults have Alcohol Use Disorder. Only 7.9 million have received treatment.
400,000 American youth have AUD. Only 5% have received treatment.
Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States (behind tobacco and poor diet/lack of physical activity). 88,000 Americans die from AUD annually.

Symptoms and Warning Signs

  • Drinking more or longer than planned
  • Talking about or trying to cut back, but unable to
  • Frequently feeling sick or hungover
  • Craving for alcohol is consuming or distracting
  • Problems at school, work, or home
  • Continuing drinking after the behavior has damaged relationships
  • Skipping or cutting back on activities that are usually important or enjoyable in order to drink
  • Injuries related to drinking
  • Continuing drinking after it has intensified feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Becoming tolerant and having to drink more to feel the effects of alcohol
  • Withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, or a racing heart when the buzz wears off
  • Lying about or hiding drinking behavior

Treatment Options

  • Behavioral treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and/or family-focused therapy. These treatments are aimed at changing drinking behavior and can take place in either inpatient or outpatient settings. Depending on the severity of the drinking behavior, a period of professionally monitored detox may be needed before treatment begins.
  • There are several medications approved in the United States to help people stop or reduce their drinking and prevent relapse. They must be prescribed by a doctor and work best in conjunction with counseling.
  • Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous provide peer support for people working to recover from AUD. Due to the anonymous nature of these groups, it’s difficult for researchers to evaluate their success rates.

Need more guidance on depicting alcohol misuse? Browse the expert directory >

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