How many people have alcohol use disorders? Using the harmful dysfunction analysis to reconcile prevalence estimates in two community surveys

Jerome C. Wakefield, Mark F. Schmitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Community prevalence rates of alcohol use disorders (AUDs) provided by epidemiological studies using DSM-based diagnostic criteria pose several challenges: the rates appear implausibly high to many epidemiologists; they do not converge across similar studies; and, due to low service utilization by those diagnosed as disordered, they yield estimates of unmet need for services so high that credibility for planning purposes is jeopardized. For example, two early community studies using DSM diagnostic criteria, the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study (ECA) and the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), yielded lifetime AUD prevalence rates of 14 and 24%, respectively, with NCS unmet need for services 19% of the entire population. Attempts to address these challenges by adding clinical significance requirements to diagnostic criteria have proven unsuccessful. Hypothesizing that these challenges are due to high rates of false-positive diagnoses of problem drinking as AUDs, we test an alternative approach. We use the harmful dysfunction (HD) analysis of the concept of mental disorder as a guide to construct more valid criteria within the framework of the standard out-of-control model of AUD. The proposed HD criteria require harm and dysfunction, where harm can be any negative social, personal, or physical outcome, and dysfunction requires either withdrawal symptoms or inability to stop drinking. Using HD criteria, ECA and NCS lifetime prevalences converge to much-reduced rates of 6 and 6.8%, respectively. Due to higher service utilization rates, NCS lifetime unmet need is reduced to 3.4%. Service use and duration comparisons suggest that HD criteria possess increased diagnostic validity. Moreover, HD criteria eliminate 90% of transient teenage drinking from disorder status. The HD version of the out-of-control model thus potentially resolves the three classic prevalence challenges while offering a more rigorous approach to distinguishing AUDs from problematic drinking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 10
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - 2014


  • Addiction
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Diagnostic criteria
  • Harmful dysfunction
  • Psychiatric epidemiology
  • Validity of diagnosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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