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Overcoming Depression and Substance Abuse

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

Depression and Substance Abuse

Mental health and substance abuse issues are closely intertwined. Depression is a common mental disorder that can be triggered or worsened by substance use, and vice versa. While the exact cause-and-effect relationship between depression and substance abuse is not fully understood, research suggests that there is a direct link between the two. People with depression are more likely to turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope with the symptoms, while substance use can also increase the risk of depression. Understanding the link between depression and substance abuse is essential in properly addressing both conditions and preventing further health complications.

What is depression?

Depression is a mental disorder that impacts an individual’s emotions and feelings. It can cause feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and lethargy. Depression can also affect someone’s concentration, as well as their ability to feel pleasure in certain activities. Although there are many different types of depression, all of them share these core symptoms. There are many theories as to what causes depression. Some researchers believe that genetics may contribute to the development of the disorder. Others believe that a chemical imbalance in the brain could play a role. Because of this, many mental health professionals believe that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is an ailment that can lead to a number of dangerous symptoms and health complications, both to the user and those around them. Substance use disorder occurs when a person becomes dependent on substances like alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Substance abuse can lead to health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and an increased risk of contracting a disease. People who are substance dependent are not able to stop using these substances even when there are negative consequences. Many people with substance abuse issues also have other mental health disorders like anxiety or depression.

The link between depression and substance abuse

There is a direct link between depression and substance abuse. In fact, many people who suffer from depression turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope with the symptoms. Substance use can also increase the risk of depression. The exact cause-and-effect relationship between depression and substance abuse is not fully understood, but there are some theories as to why they are so closely connected. One theory is that both disorders may share the same genetic factors. Another theory is that they are connected because both disorders are associated with low serotonin levels in the brain.

Different types of clinical depression

Before we discuss the link between depression and substance abuse, it’s important to distinguish between different types of clinical depression. In general, common signs of depression include feelings of intense sadness, loneliness, and lethargy, as well as changes in appetite and sleeping patterns. Other symptoms of clinical depression include feelings of guilt, hopelessness, irritability, inability to concentrate, and suicidal thoughts. There are several types of clinical depression, each with its own causes and symptoms.

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the most common type of clinical depression. Major depression is marked by a persistent feeling of sadness that lasts for at least two weeks. People with major depression may also experience physical symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping, and loss of interest in hobbies.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD) is a type of clinical depression that lasts for at least two years.
  • Bipolar disorder includes symptoms of depression, but it is often accompanied by episodes of mania or hypomania.

Alcohol and depression symptoms

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the United States and the link between depression and alcohol is well documented. Studies have shown that people with either depression or anxiety are more likely to turn to alcohol to cope with painful emotions. Alcohol use can worsen the symptoms of depression, including feelings of sadness, lack of motivation, and lack of pleasure. In some cases, alcohol dependence can lead to full-blown MDD. It’s important to note that not all people who drink alcohol will develop depression. In general, people who already suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to develop additional symptoms of either condition when they drink alcohol.

Drugs and depression symptoms

Drugs like opioids, cocaine, and amphetamines are extremely addictive substances that can worsen the symptoms of depression. People who have a history of depression or anxiety are at a higher risk of developing substance use disorders. Depression can make it harder for people to quit drugs or recover from opioid addiction. Many people who have both depression and addiction disorders also have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation. Withdrawal symptoms from drug abuse can also worsen depression when people are seeking treatment for drug dependence, which is why it is critical to treat depression and depressive symptoms simultaneously.

What other mental disorders are associated with addiction?

Dual-diagnosis patients suffer from both addiction and comorbid mental health conditions. Besides depression and anxiety, there are a number of other mental illnesses that are associated with addiction. People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop substance use disorders than the general population. And people with psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. People with anxiety or depression may also be at higher risk for other mental illnesses.

It is important for people with depression or anxiety to visit their psychiatrist or doctor regularly and ask for a screening for other mental illnesses. Getting help for all of your mental health issues can improve the quality of your life and prevent further complications from all of your conditions.

Dangers of untreated depression

One of the most common dangers of untreated depression is suicide. Depression can make a person feel hopeless and desperate, and they may even develop suicidal thoughts as a result of their disorder. The most important thing to remember if you think a friend or family member is suicidal is that you do not have to deal with this problem alone. There are many ways to get help if you feel suicidal, including calling a helpline or going to a hospital. If a friend or family member is suicidal, you can also alert their doctor or psychiatrist.

Dangers of untreated addiction

Besides worsening the symptoms of depression, alcohol abuse and other forms of substance use can also have devastating physical and emotional consequences. Alcohol abuse can lead to serious health problems, including liver failure, heart disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. Substance use disorders are also linked to an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV/AIDS, and certain cancers. Addiction also affects your relationships with friends and family members. It can strain your relationships with loved ones and make it harder to hold down a job, pay your bills, or meet other important obligations.

Common substances used to cope with depression

There are a wide variety of substances that people with depression often use to cope with their symptoms. Some of the most common substances include alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine, or opioids.

  • Alcohol – Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances among people with depression. People with depression may turn to alcohol to create a relaxed, euphoric feeling that can help them forget about their negative feelings. Research has also shown that alcohol can be effective in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms in the short term. However, alcohol is also associated with a high risk of dependence and addiction, and over the long term, it can worsen anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.
  • Prescription drugs – Certain prescription drugs, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, can be very helpful in treating the symptoms of depression. While they can help, some of these drugs can also lead to abuse and addiction.
  • Illegal drugs – Marijuana, cocaine, and opioids are illegal drugs that are often abused by people who suffer from depression. Marijuana and other substances may help temporarily reduce depression symptoms, but they are also known to worsen anxiety disorders.
  • Other substances – Other substances that may be used by people with depression include tobacco, caffeine, and other drugs. These drugs are also addictive and can create dangerous and unpredictable mood swings that can exacerbate mental illness and even lead to a new mood disorder.

Effects of substance use on depression

There is a direct link between substance abuse and depression, but that does not mean that every person with depression will turn to substances. However, many people who suffer from depression turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to cope with their symptoms. Recent research suggests that substance use can worsen depression. Some of the ways that substance use can worsen depression include:

  • Substance use may trigger depression in certain people – Some people may have a genetic disposition towards both depression and substance abuse. Research has shown that people who have a history of depression in their family are more likely to experience both disorders.
  • Substance use may increase the risk of depression – Drug abuse can also increase the risk of depression, especially with prolonged use.
  • Substance use may disrupt treatment for depression – Using substances to cope with depression may make it difficult to follow a treatment plan for the disorder.
  • Substance use may make it harder to recognize symptoms of depression – Substance use can create a mental fog that makes it harder to recognize symptoms of depression.

Prevention strategies for depression and substance abuse

A person who suffers from clinical depression and substance use disorders can benefit from getting help. The earlier someone gets help for their substance abuse or depression, the better the outcome is likely to be. There are several strategies that people can use to prevent depression and substance abuse, including the following:

  • Get support – Talking to a loved one about your feelings and asking for help when you need it can make a difference. Joining a support group for people who suffer from depression and substance abuse can also help.
  • Engage in self-care – Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding substances that may trigger cravings for more are all helpful ways to prevent depression and substance abuse.
  • Make healthy choices – Avoid self-medicating with legal or illegal substances and not getting enough sleep, as this can make co-occurring depression worse.
  • Seek addiction treatment – Often people need to get professional help for their negative emotions and their co-occurring addiction. SSRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors can help with depression, and counseling can make it easier to manage the common symptoms of depression.

Treatment options for depression and substance abuse

Depression and substance abuse commonly present together, forming a complex and difficult relationship. For many people, substance abuse can be a way to cope with depression, while for others, substance abuse can contribute to or worsen depression. While the connection between depression and substance abuse can be difficult to untangle, understanding this relationship is essential for effective treatment.

Substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment are both necessary components of helping someone to recover, as the two issues can be intertwined and feed off one another. With an awareness of the link between major depression and substance abuse, we can ensure that individuals receive the help and support they need to overcome this difficult challenge. Treating depression and substance abuse is challenging, however, it is possible with the right support and treatment. There are many types of treatment that are helpful for people who suffer from both disorders. These include:
  • Psychotherapy – Therapy can be very effective in treating both depression and substance abuse.
  • Medications – Certain medications, such as antidepressants, can be helpful in treating both depression and substance abuse.
  • Twelve-step programs – Twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and other support groups are helpful in treating both depression and substance abuse.
  • Other interventions – Other interventions that can be helpful include mind-body techniques, acupuncture, and meditation.
  • Comorbidity treatment – Finally, there exist some specific treatment options designed to treat both depression and substance abuse at once. Rehabs can help people with co-occurring depression, mood disorders, and alcohol use disorder by offering integrated treatment.

Outpatient programs for depression and addiction

Some people with both disorders may be able to attend outpatient treatment programs for depression and addiction. These programs combine group therapy with prescription medications to address both disorders. In many cases, people with both disorders are prescribed antidepressants to manage symptoms of depression and anti-anxiety medications to manage symptoms of anxiety.

There are a few programs that specialize in treating both depression and addiction at the same time. They often rely on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to address both disorders. CBT is a type of therapy that works to change negative thought patterns to improve mood and reduce the urge to use substances. These programs are often more flexible than residential treatment programs and allow people to continue working and living at home while attending treatment.

The importance of addressing both mental health and addiction

There is a direct link between depression and substance abuse, and addressing both conditions is critical. Depression and substance abuse are two disorders that are very difficult to treat. In fact, many people who suffer from one of these disorders also have the other, which makes the treatment process even more challenging. It is best to seek professional help as soon as possible when dealing with both conditions. Having a mental health professional’s guidance can make a difference in the outcome of both conditions.

The sooner that someone with depression and substance abuse seeks treatment, the more likely it is that a full recovery is possible. Working with a mental health professional can be helpful in addressing both conditions and making a full recovery.

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Author
Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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