In the past, alcoholism and other substance use disorders were viewed as faults with character or willpower. Today, they are seen as medical conditions that respond better to treatment rather than punishment. Alcoholism as a substance use disorder is currently further defined as a mental health problem, in the same manner as depression. Research studies attempting to determine if one causes the other are contradictory and often inconclusive, making it difficult to determine the exact link between alcohol and depression.
Facts and Statistics Involving Alcohol and Depression
- SAMHSA reports that almost 30% of youth who suffer depression have been using alcohol or drugs before they turned 18 compared to less than 15% of youth who do not have depression
- Individuals with an alcohol use disorder are almost twice as likely to suffer from major depression compared to the general population as provided through research by Boston University
- About 28% of those who suffer from alcohol dependence also suffer from depression, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Effects of Alcohol on Mood
Alcohol will initially give users an uplifted or euphoric feeling. However, once these positive effects wear off, people tend to experience a lower or depressed mood. Alcohol is considered to be a depressant due to its effects on the central nervous system. In addition to slowing heart rate, respiration, and brain function, alcohol can decrease neurotransmitter levels as well. Decreased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are one of the main reasons that people experience depression, In fact, antidepressant medications are used to increase levels of these neurotransmitters to improve mood. Long-term heavy use of alcohol can permanently affect these neurotransmitters, leading to an increased risk of depression.
Effects of Depression on Alcohol Use
There are times when people who suffer from depression say they use alcohol to help them to feel better. This is often referred to as “self-medicating.” However, the mood-lifting effects of alcohol are only temporary, causing the depressed individual to need more frequent and increased doses to feel the same uplifting effects, especially as tolerance levels increase. It is suspected that without medical intervention, those who self-medicate to treat their depression with alcohol risk becoming addicted.
How Alcohol Use and Depression Affect Each Other
As with other types of substance abuse, alcohol use disorders can create symptoms related to mental health issues, including depression. The more a substance is used, the worse these symptoms may appear. This may lead to more abuse of a harmful substance to overcome the increasing negative mood. However, there are times when quitting alcohol use can also alleviate depressive symptoms. If symptoms remain, then treatment for depression should be provided.
Common Factors between Alcohol Abuse and Depression
While alcohol use may create symptoms associated with depression, and depression may lead to an increased risk of alcohol use, there are some factors in common between alcoholism and depression. There are genetic factors that overlap for those who abuse alcohol and those who suffer from mood disorders such as depression. In addition, some of the same areas in the brain are involved in the presence of alcohol abuse and depression. Finally, early exposure to similar traumatic or stressful situations can lead to an increased risk for alcohol use disorder, mental health problems, or both.
Importance of Treatment
Treatment for both alcoholism and depression are important for successful recovery. Because it is not always easy to determine if one problem is causing the other, many patients benefit from inpatient treatment. This allows for monitoring and supervision to help professionals determine if one condition caused the other or if treatment for both issues should be provided at the same time for the best results. With proper treatment and ongoing care, those who suffer from a dual diagnosis of alcoholism and depression can live a better life.