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Alcohol and Depression

There is no denying that certain mental health disorders, such as depression, often co-occur with substance use disorders (SUDs). Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and depressive disorders, including major depressive disorder, often occur at the same time, and depressive disorders are the most common types of psychiatric disorders for those with AUD.1


What is Depression?

Depression is a common mood disorder that can potentially have serious adverse impacts to several areas of a person’s life.2 It can impact your ability to function in many areas of your life, including at work, at school, and in relationships. Depressive disorders are characterized by an irregular mood (irritability, low mood, numb affect) along with physical symptoms (low motivation, lack of energy) and cognitive problems (difficulty focusing, poor self-image).1

Depression can impact anyone, and there are various types of depression, including:2

  • Major depressive disorder: Experiencing symptoms of depression that interfere with one’s capability to do normal things like go to school or eat and sleep for at least 2 weeks.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia): Mild symptoms of depression that last at least 2 years.
  • Perinatal depression: Depression symptoms occurring while pregnant or after giving birth (postpartum depression).
  • Seasonal affective disorder: Symptoms usually begin in late fall and end with the arrival of spring.
  • Depression with psychosis: A severe form of depression that includes psychosis symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

Some symptoms of major depressive disorder include:3

  • Having a depressed mood almost daily and for most of the day.
  • Anhedonia (loss of pleasure or joy in once pleasurable activities).
  • Significant weight gain or loss.
  • Difficulty sleeping (sleeping too much or too little).
  • Loss of energy or fatigue on a daily basis.
  • Frequent thoughts of death.

Find Out If Your Insurance Plan Covers Treatment for Alcohol Use and Co-occurring Disorders 

American Addiction Centers can help people recover from alcohol use and alcohol use disorders (AUDs). To find out if your insurance covers treatment, including treatment for co-occurring disorders such as depression, for you or your loved one at an American Addiction Centers facility, click here, or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential. You can also click here to find an addiction treatment center near me.


The Relationship Between Alcohol & Depression

Research suggests a connection between alcohol and depression, since they often co-exist in the same person.1 When a mental health and substance use disorder exist simultaneously or one proceeds the other, it is called a co-occurring disorder.4

Research indicates that:1

  • Among people with AUD, major depressive disorder is the most common co-occurring disorder.
  • People with AUD are 2.3 times more likely to meet the criteria for major depressive disorder than people without AUD.
  • The rate of depressive disorders is higher among those who have alcohol dependence.
  • 11% of people in treatment for AUD met the criteria for dysthymia, and 33% met the criteria for major depressive disorder.

It is important to note that having co-occurring disorders of AUD and depression doesn’t mean that one caused the other; instead, they mutually influence and often exacerbate one another.6 The co-occurrence of AUD and depressive disorders is associated with greater severity and worse prognosis for both disorders. Due to the complex nature of both mental illness and SUDs, it is hard to determine which disorder existed first.


Does Depression Lead to Alcohol Misuse?

The symptoms of depression can have a profound impact on your ability to function and overall quality of life. There are several theoretical explanations for the prevalent co-occurrence of mental health issues and substance use disorders.

One of these hypothesizes that people may turn to alcohol to help cope with the symptoms of depression or other mental health issues; however, the repeated use of alcohol as a means of coping—commonly referred to as the self-medication theory—is one potential pathway leading to the development of co-occurring depression and an AUD.5

The repeated use of alcohol also can change the physiology of the brain and impact behavior. For example, the rewarding or pleasant effects of alcohol may be enhanced in people with depressive disorders, which makes it more likely that they will continue to use alcohol.6 One study suggests that the rate of self-medication with alcohol for people with major depression is approximately 15%.5


Does Alcohol Make You More Depressed?

Alcohol use including intoxication and withdrawal, can induce mood symptoms similar to those experienced with major depression. Furthermore, chronic alcohol use can disrupt brain chemistry and influence behavior in a way that increases your risk of developing a mental health disorder like depression.6 When alcohol triggers depression symptoms that result in functional deficiencies it is referred to as alcohol-induced depression.1

Symptoms of alcohol-induced depressive disorder resolve within a few weeks of abstinence.1 The specific impact of alcohol use on depressive symptoms remains largely unclear. However, research shows that abstinence from alcohol in general can lead to a significant improvement in depressive symptoms for many people.1


Causes & Risk Factors

A combination of factors can increase your risk of developing co-occurring AUD and depression. One factor is having a genetic predisposition to mental illness and/or addiction. Certain genes passed down from generation to generation can increase a person’s risk for AUD and/or depression.6 The environment you grew up in and live in can also play a role in the development of both disorders. Trauma and stress, particularly if experienced during youth or adolescence, may also increase the risk of developing mental illness like major depression or an SUD.6

Some specific risk factors for depression include:2

  • A family history of depression.
  • Certain medications and physical/medical illnesses.
  • Experiencing trauma, severe stress, or significant life changes.

Research shows that the following factors can increase your risk of developing an AUD:7

  • A family history of AUD
  • Drinking at a young age
  • History of trauma
  • Having a mental illness

Alcohol, Depression & Suicide

There is a strong correlation between suicide and depression and alcohol. Research estimates that 22% of suicide deaths in the United States involved alcohol intoxication.8

In a study looking at U.S. suicide deaths between 2014 and 2016:9

  • Approximately 46% of all individuals had a known mental health condition.
  • Around 28% had a known mental condition.
  • Around 28% misused substances.
  • Of those who misused substances, almost one-third (32 percent) also had a known mental health condition.

Additional statistics on alcohol use and suicide include:8

  • A person who struggles with alcohol dependence or misuse is at 10 times greater risk for suicide than the general population.
  • Alcohol intoxication is found in 30%–40% of all suicide attempts.

Suicide is a leading cause of death for people who misuse alcohol and other drugs.8

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol and suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Help is available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Help for Depression & Alcohol Abuse

Help is available to you if you are struggling with alcohol use and mental health challenges. If you are struggling with depression, stopping or reducing your alcohol use may help.1

The severity of both your co-occurring depressive disorder and AUD can help determine the type of treatment and treatment setting that may be appropriate for you. For many people, a less intensive outpatient program may be appropriate, and that can include things like outpatient therapy and mutual support groups.7(mutual-support groups) For others, inpatient treatment is warranted.

It is recommended that treatment for co-occurring disorders be integrated in a way that treats both AUD and the co-occurring disorder at the same time. Integrated treatment may involve various treatment interventions that can include:6,7

  • Behavioral therapies: This can include evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and contingency management (CM).
  • Medications: Some medications are helpful in treating various mental health conditions and others may be prescribed to address a person’s AUD.
  • Mutual support groups and group therapy: These offer peer support and encouragement throughout the recovery process.

Many medications can help improve depression symptoms, and common medications include:10

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
  • Tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants.
  • Atypical antidepressants.
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

It is important to note that depression medication should be taken as instructed by your doctor, and if you are experiencing any side effects from your medication, talk to them immediately.10

Alcohol and Depression FAQs

More resources about Alcohol and Depression: