Alcohol Abuse and Depression: Connecting the Two

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Some people say they may be drinking to “drown their sorrows”. After a stressful day at work or bad breakup, this may be the case, as alcohol makes you sleepy and temporarily relieves anxiety. But if you’re turning to a cocktail or three after every problem you encounter, this can be a sign of alcohol abuse.

There is also a strong connection between alcohol abuse and depression, a condition known as co-occurring disorders. In some cases, depression can lead to the substance abuse, while other times, substance abuse precedes the mood disorder. You may be asking, do people who drink too much become depressed or is a depressed person more likely to abuse alcohol? Both can be true. No matter which comes first, these co-occurring disorders can become severe over time, and may require intervention and/or treatment. Let’s read on to see just how common these disorders are, and explore the connection between depression and alcohol abuse.

Is Depression to Blame?
According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, one-third of those with major-depression also deal with alcohol abuse. To answer the question, yes. Often, depression does come first. The National Comorbidity Study found in 1997 that men with alcohol dependence had rates of depression that were three times higher than those of the rest of the population. Women with alcohol dependence had depression rates four times higher. However, research also shows that abuse or dependence on alcohol increases your risk for developing depression in the first place.

Depression is not the only mental disorder associated with alcohol abuse. According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, 40.7% of those who were seeking treatment for a current alcohol use disorder had at least 1 current independent mood disorder. Individuals with this dual diagnosis may also suffer from anxiety disorders, personality disorders, bipolar disorder or other addictive behaviors. The impact of the dual diagnosis is also severe, as people with depression and alcohol abuse are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors. The prognosis for these individuals is also poorer, due to high relapse rates of substance abuse and less adherence to any kind of treatment program.

The Problem with Alcohol
Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, affected more than 17 million adults over the age of 18 in the U.S. in 2012. 855,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 were also affected, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). A diagnosis of AUD is typically made by determining whether an individual meets certain criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. What does AUD look like? Ask yourself or a loved one these questions:

  • Have you ever ended up drinking more or for longer than you intended?
  • Have you spent a significant amount of time drinking or getting over the effects of drinking?
  • Have you experienced a strong urge to drink (known as a craving)?
  • Are you unable to stop or cut back on your drinking, even when you want to?
  • Do you continue to drink even when it causes problems in your personal or professional life?
  • Have you participated in risky behaviors while drinking such as driving or engaging in sexual activity?
  • Do you continue to drink even if the alcohol is causing health problems or worsening current medical conditions?
  • Do you find you need more alcohol to get the same effects (known as tolerance)?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms like shaking, excessive sweating, nausea, difficulty sleeping or anxiety when you don’t drink?

Alcohol use disorder is a serious condition that can worsen significantly over any given period time, and can be influenced by genetics and environmental factors. The good news? Professional treatment can often help those struggling with alcohol use disorder.
The Facts about Depression
Depression is the most common type of mental disorder today, affecting as many as 350 million people across the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S. alone the number of people seeking help for depression has doubled; now 25 million a year. Similarly to alcohol use disorder, depression can take its toll on personal relationships, professional careers and a person’s overall quality of life.

Clinical depression is more than simply experiencing the blues from time to time. This disorder is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • A persistent feeling of sadness or emptiness
  • Feelings of helplessness or worthlessness
  • Diminished energy, persistent fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Restlessness, difficulty sitting still
  • Sleep disruptions or difficulties
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Loss of interest in people, hobbies or activities
  • Physical aches or pains without any medical cause

Symptoms must also persist for at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression to be made. Once the disorder is properly diagnosed, it is often effectively treated through a combination of medication, psychotherapy and brain stimulation therapy.
Which Comes First: Depression or Alcohol Abuse?
Determining the cause and effect between depression and Alcohol use disorder (abuse or dependence) can be difficult. In many cases, depression leads to the substance abuse, as the person suffering from depression attempts to “self-medicate” symptoms. This is most frequently the case for women, who are more than twice as likely to abuse alcohol if they have a history of major depression. Nevertheless, alcohol places you at risk for depression due to the substance being a depressant that leads to alterations in brain chemistry.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol also leads to an increase in impulsive behavior and poor decision-making. As a result, you could drain your bank account, ruin a relationship, or face legal consequences, leading you to feeling down- particularly if your brain is pre-wired for depression.
No matter which disorder occurs first, both major depression and alcohol use disorders carry a significant risk for the development of the other. 90% of those diagnosed with depression are prescribed antidepressant medications, but not all of these individuals are abusing alcohol. However, alcohol use does impact their effectiveness, especially if drinking excessive amounts. At the same time, those dealing with alcohol abuse may find that symptoms of depression increase their cravings for alcohol. Unfortunately, the effects of the alcohol only make the depression symptoms worse, rather than improving them.

How Can I Treat My Depression and AUD?
Treatment of depression and AUD is more complex than treating either condition individually. Most often, substantial abstinence from alcohol must be obtained first before any type of diagnosis or treatment of depression can begin. Since Alcohol withdrawal can be a dangerous process that often involves medical supervision, inpatient treatment is often recommended for these individuals. Medical guidance then can also be given for combating depression that may be necessary.
Persistent depression during abstinence from alcohol is a risk factor for relapse to heavy drinking, thus it’s imperative that the co-occurring disorders be treated together. Because of the complexities of treating a dual diagnosis, it is important to find a treatment facility that specializes in the type of care you or a loved one need.

At Simple Recovery we work with both men and women struggling with a dual diagnosis. Our comprehensive treatment program addresses these disorders at every level, greatly increasing the odds of successful recovery and long-term sobriety and relief from depression. To learn more about our treatment programs, contact Simple Recovery today at 888-743-0490.