Millions of people in the U.S. struggle with symptoms of clinical depression. As one of the leading causes of disability in the world, depression is a severe mental health condition that can cause significant impairment in a person’s day-to-day functioning. Depression, when left untreated, can also increase the risk of a person developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. In fact, excessive alcohol use is a contributing factor in suicidal behavior.
People dealing with the painful symptoms of depression often turn to alcohol for relief from these symptoms. But alcohol is only a temporary solution. Long-term, problem drinking can lead to a host of other problems and health complications. Below, we explore the link between alcohol and depression, and what someone can do to help a loved one struggling with these issues.
Why do people drink alcohol when they are depressed?
Depression causes an array of different symptoms that can cause distress and impairment in a person’s life. Some of the most common symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent feelings of guilt or low self-worth
- Sadness and tearfulness
- Irritability and anger
- Social isolation
Alcohol, however, can alleviate these symptoms, although only temporarily. Drinking can elevate a person’s mood, help them relax, and decrease the urge to socially withdraw. Still, excessive drinking over a long period of time can lead to alcohol dependence. When a person becomes dependent on alcohol, they experience physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal if they are unable to drink.
Alcohol dependence and excessive drinking can worsen depression symptoms. It’s crucial that people who enter rehab for alcohol abuse stemming from depression are treated for both, also known as co-occurring disorders. For individuals struggling with alcohol use, not addressing depression and receiving treatment increases the chances for relapse and suicide attempts.
Does alcohol abuse cause depression, or are depressed people more likely to abuse alcohol?
Both scenarios are common, and it can be difficult for patients, loved ones, and clinicians to determine how these two conditions overlap. Alcohol is a depressant, and it can worsen existing depression symptoms. To put this in perspective: According to a study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people suffering from alcohol use disorder, or AUD, are over 2 times more likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder compared to people who do not abuse alcohol. The study also showed that acute AUD patients were nearly 4 times more likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder and nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from dysthymia, a prolonged mild depression. Dysthymia, when left untreated, can lead to major depressive disorder. Once diagnosed and receiving treatment for depression, drinking alcohol renders antidepressant medications less effective. But drinking alcohol while taking an antidepressant doesn’t just make the medication ineffective, it can also produce dangerous side effects. For example, MAOI antidepressants mixed with alcohol increase blood pressure and can potentially cause a fatal stroke.
People with depression who drink are at high risk of suicide. Depression, alcohol, and drug abuse are the top three major risk factors for suicide attempts. Up to 75% of people who commit suicide have drugs and alcohol in their systems at the time of death.
About one-third of those who have clinical depression also have co-occurring alcohol use disorder. It’s common for depression sufferers to find relief from their symptoms by drinking, but unfortunately, drinking makes depression symptoms worse long term.
What makes someone vulnerable to depression and co-occurring alcohol use disorder?
There is no single cause for either depression or alcohol abuse and addiction. A combination of specific genetic, physiological, and environmental factors can increase someone’s risk of developing these comorbid conditions. To make matters even murkier for patients and clinicians alike, one condition can trigger the other. Which condition typically comes first is different for both men and women. Studies show that men tend to report drinking problems before experiencing depression symptoms. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be depressed before turning to alcohol to alleviate their symptoms.
When should someone get help for depression and alcohol use disorder?
Depression and drinking make both problems worse, and it’s dangerous to drink while taking antidepressants. For people with comorbid depression and alcohol use disorder, it’s critical that they receive comprehensive, integrated treatment for both diseases. Treating one, but not the other, increases the chances of relapse for either depression or alcoholism.
For depressed patients who need rehabilitation for alcohol use disorder, they can benefit from a combination of therapy, medical detox, antidepressants, and 12-step programs.
What should someone do if they are concerned about a loved one’s drinking and depression?
First, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of depression and problem drinking. Problem drinking is defined as more than one drink per day for women, and more than two drinks per day for men. Binge drinking for women is four or more drinks in one sitting for women, and five or more drinks in one sitting for men. If a loved one is missing work or school, having trouble fulfilling obligations, and engaging in problematic behavior when drinking, these are all symptoms of alcohol use disorder.
For depression, the signs to look for in a loved one include:
- Feelings of shame or guilt
- Excessive sadness and tearfulness
- Anger and irritability
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in eating habits
- Problems engaging in self-care
- Problems fulfilling normal obligations
- Loss of interest or pleasure in things or activities that once brought joy
- Suicidal threats, self-harm, and suicide attempts
When confronting a loved one about depression and alcohol abuse, it’s important to avoid placing blame on the loved one. Before speaking to someone about these concerns, it’s critical to have a plan in place before the intervention. The steps for helping a loved one with comorbid depression and alcoholism include:
- Getting support from clinicians, social workers, mental health professionals, and drug rehabilitation counselors.
- Helping the person with self-care
- Having a treatment option ready for the individual to explore
- Staging an intervention
- Participating in the treatment plan
Alcohol and depression are lifelong illnesses that need ongoing care, maintenance, and support from trusted family and friends. But with treatment, people can go on to live a life of sobriety, free from the painful symptoms of depression. If you’re concerned about your or a loved one’s depression and alcohol use, call the Zinnia Health drug addiction hotline at (855) 430-9439.