How is depression related to drug abuse?

Depression and alcoholism can be related. In the general population, about 30-50% of alcoholics also have depression. The two disorders are frequently seen together in veterans, and either one can come first. Existing problems with alcohol may bring on depression, and depression may lead to veterans’ abuse of alcohol in order to “feel better” or self-medicate. Both problems need to be treated in order for the veteran to recover. If you have a family history of depression or alcoholism, you will be more at risk of developing these conditions yourself. Alcohol increases depression symptoms and impulsive behavior, and major depression combined with alcohol abuse increases the likelihood of suicide by motor vehicle or overdose. When the use of alcohol is eliminated, depressed patients see a significant decrease in symptoms within three to four weeks.

Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Someone with an underlying depression is more likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol because the drug use is so rewarding. One widely held theory of human and even animal behavior holds that behaviors that are rewarded will increase and behaviors that are punished will decrease. In accordance with this universal theory, someone who is depressed and uses drugs is likely to find the behavior very rewarding and therefore use is likely to turn into abuse.

Using drugs and/or alcohol to numb out a depression is probably the most insidious way of masking depression. Use of cocaine or other stimulants to mask depression can be threatening to a person's life functioning. These drugs are addictive and lead to serious impairments in health, relationships, and professional activities. Stimulants not only medicate fatigue but also temporarily boost self-esteem by providing a sense of grandiosity and an expanded feeling of self-confidence. And, to make matters worse, the complications of an addiction on top of a depression make it very difficult to access the underlying meaning of the depression.

Additionally, once a person stops using the drugs that are medicating the symptom of depression, the symptom is likely to return—along with symptoms of withdrawal. In this way, stopping use of the drug will seem very punishing, and this, too, will maintain the habit.

Listening to Depression: How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life

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Listening to Depression: How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life

A New Way of Thinking About DepressionWhat does it really mean to be depressed? You know depression as a collection of symptoms—fatigue, listlessness, feelings of worthlessness—and the source of...
Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine Specialist

People can experience depression after quitting stimulants. Sometimes the depression occurs quickly and powerfully; so quitting stimulant use on your own is risky. It is best to seek the help and guidance of a doctor.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Alcoholics who have a family history of depression, or who go through a difficult life event, are more likely to develop depression. When the mood disorder arises after alcoholism becomes a problem, it is called secondary depression.

Dr. Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine Specialist

Up to 40 percent of people who drink heavily have symptoms that resemble a depressive illness. However, when these same people are not drinking heavily, only 5 percent of men and 10 percent of woman have symptoms meeting the diagnostic criteria for depression—not that different from the rates of depression in the general population.

About 5 to 10 percent of people with a depressive illness also have symptoms of an alcohol problem. People with depression sometimes use alcohol as a form of self-medication, for example, either in an attempt to cheer themselves up, or sometimes to help them sleep. Although in small quantities alcohol can briefly lift mood, if used to try to cope with a depressive illness, problems arise. Tolerance to the effects of alcohol can lead to individuals needing it in larger quantities to have an effect. Alcohol in large quantities, whether taken to treat a depression or not, produces a depressant effect on people's mood.

Research has shown an increased risk of substance abuse or dependence among people with mild-to-moderate depression. Studies have reported a comorbidity rate of 21% for mild-to-moderate depression and substance abuse, and of 19% for mild-to-moderate depression and drug abuse (apart from alcohol abuse). Conversely, people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs have a high rate of depression. Alcohol and some drugs are depressants, and depressed mood can be a direct outcome of substance abuse.

It's tempting to self-medicate to cope with major depression, but you're more vulnerable to negative side effects when the alcohol or drugs wear off. Feeling down or hopeless after you use alcohol or drugs ups the chances that you'll use more alcohol or drugs to squash bad feelings. To make matters worse, it can cause dangerous interactions with antidepressants and other medications, and interfere with healthy sleep, eating, and exercise habits.

James R. Healy, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Many substances can cause symptoms similar to depression during their use or during withdrawal from their use. Some substances, such as methamphetamine, may have a prolonged effect on mood even long after someone stops taking the drug. In general, a co-occurring mood disorder such as depression will persist after a person has been abstinent for an extended period of time. Also, the person often will have experienced symptoms prior to starting use of alcohol or other drugs. A qualified professional can help make the distinction and suggest the appropriate treatments.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.