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Alcohol Abuse and Depression: Definition, Statistics and Risks


Author: Greg Basham

Last Updated: 6/28/2022

Alcohol abuse and depression are two disorders that can co-occur but are not dependent on one another. What this means is that people can develop alcoholism without a predisposition for depression, or without currently experiencing depression. People can also experience depression without suffering from alcoholism. 

The link, however, between alcoholism and depression is prevalent. Studies show that people who suffer from depression are more likely to abuse alcohol. People who abuse alcohol are more likely to become depressed. 

While that seems like a generalization, statistics regarding depressed individuals do show a correlation between long-term depression and the development of an alcohol use disorder. As people can turn to alcohol to cope with the emotions that are associated with depression, like feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, sadness, and irritability, it is possible to become addicted to the release that alcohol may offer. 

However, when the effects of alcohol wear off, a toll is taken on the mind, which can have consequences on the regulation of brain chemistry. As the chemicals in the brain that alcohol effects are also those which regulate happiness and sadness, depression can become worse with prolonged alcohol abuse. 

What Is Depression?

Depression is an overarching term that describes a variety of mental disorders which while both common and serious, are also treatable. Depression is typically diagnosed in individuals who experience prolonged feelings of sadness, as well as diminished interest in activities, hobbies, or lifeways that a person might have once found interesting and fulfilling. 

Depression is known to lead to emotional and physical problems that can severely decrease productivity, happiness, and an overall passion for life. 

Depression takes many forms and can be diagnosed in a range from mild to severe, based on an array of symptoms. These include feelings of sadness and depressed mood, thoughts of death or suicide, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, loss of energy and unexplainable fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and a loss of interest or productivity in areas that were once enjoyed. 

While some of these symptoms might appear unspecific, the reality is that depression can have a subtle effect on the mind at first. It’s mostly when the symptoms described above persist, that depression can become more serious. 

Generally, two weeks of continuous symptoms are the first marker that an individual is experiencing a major depressive disorder. There are a host of causes, such as a death in the family, failures at work, and other socio-economic factors which may cause a person to experience depression. 

Sometimes, grief and depression can be confused, but one of the determining factors has to do with feelings of self-worth. When a person grieves, it is uncommon that they feel worthless. However, when diagnosing depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness, are very common indicators of depression. 

What Are the Causes of Depression and Alcoholism? 

Depression, like alcoholism, can affect everyone. Some shared genetic and biochemical risk factors predispose certain individuals, but while that sometimes is the case, outside influences that can be socio-economic do pose a legitimate risk as well.

  1. Biochemical: biochemical differences pertain to differences in certain chemicals in the brain which can contribute to symptoms of depression. If a person is predisposed to anxiety, for example, because of aspects of their brain chemistry, they might be more likely to experience depression. Similarly, if a person has a biochemical predisposition to compulsive behavior, they might be more likely to develop a drinking habit which can turn into an alcohol use disorder if not considered carefully. 
  2. Genetics: Genetics is another cause of both depression and alcoholism. As scientists and medical professionals continue to research both disorders, it has become clear that a link may exist between depression and alcoholism (independent of one another) and genetics. This means that if depression runs in the family a person may be predisposed to depression, and the same is true of alcoholism. Strong evidence of this concerns identical twins: if one twin has depression, research shows up to a 70% chance that the other twin will experience depression at some stage in life. Similar to alcoholism, if alcohol use disorder was documented in a previous generation, the current generation might be genetically predisposed to the disorder too. 
  3. Personality: Personality is another potential cause of depression, as well as alcoholism. If a person is easily overwhelmed by stress, has low self-esteem, or has grown up to be pessimistic, they may find themselves more likely to have depressing thoughts and fall into a depression. Similarly, people with the same personality tendencies may turn to drinking to manage their feelings, and thus develop a reliance on alcohol. If alcohol abuse persists over a long enough period, especially due to personality traits that are not confronted, that habit can turn into a dependence that may need serious medical attention and rehabilitation to recover from. 
  4. Environmental factors: Environmental factors can play a key role in the development of both depression and alcoholism. An abusive upbringing, or an environment where drug and alcohol abuse is normalized, as well as experiencing personal trauma, are all well-documented causes of both depression and alcoholism. While the two may not occur at the same time, they can be caused by the same environmental risk factors. Poverty and family negligence are also potentially very influential environmental factors that can cause a person to fall into a depression, or to turn to alcohol to cope with negative emotions and personal traumas. 

These are only a handful of the causes of alcoholism and depression.

How Can Alcohol Abuse Affect People With Depression? 

Alcohol abuse can harm people who already suffer from depression. Because depression brings about symptoms that can cause a person to feel continuously sad or hopeless, over an extended period, these feelings might come to feel unshakable. This is when a person might turn to alcohol for temporary relief. 

When alcohol is used to suppress or release the symptoms of depression, like worthlessness, irritability, or general sadness, what follows is the development of an addiction. 

Alcohol consumption that is heavy, and persists over a long period, greatly affects the neurotransmitters that control the same brain chemicals which regulate the feelings associated with depression. These chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, commonly fluctuate rapidly after prolonged alcohol abuse. As dopamine is the controlling factor in the brain’s reward system, while serotonin is a major help in balancing a person’s mood, unstable levels of these chemicals are directly tied to feelings of depression. 

So, for people who are already experiencing some or all of the symptoms of depression, continued alcohol abuse can only worsen those symptoms.

What Are the Statistics on Alcohol Abuse and Depression?

Two of the most cited reasons for the association between alcoholism and depression is that both disorders have shared underlying environmental and genetic factors. So, while alcohol abuse can affect an individual who is not depressed, and vice versa, the risk that both disorders can take effect at the same time is high. 

A great deal of research has shown that people who drink heavily are more likely to develop depression and that people with depression who start drinking heavily are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder and also worsen their depression. This leads to what some researchers call a high-prevalence rate of alcohol-dependent people experiencing major depression, approximately 64%. 

Other studies state that at least 30-40% of alcoholics also experience a depressive disorder. This rate is higher than the rough estimate of all adults in the United States who will experience a major episode of depression at some point in their life, which is 20-25%. The statistics do show that depression is more prevalent in individuals who abuse alcohol and that people who are depressed are more likely to develop alcoholism. 

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Abuse For People With Depression? 

The risks of alcohol abuse for people with depression have mostly to do with the effect that heavy alcohol abuse can have on the body and the mind. When a person drinks alcohol heavily, it can take a toll on the brain’s chemistry, impacting the levels of key chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine regulate moods like satisfaction and happiness. 

People struggling with depression already have compromised levels of these chemicals, so when alcohol abuse is introduced, especially over a long period, it can cause the negative feelings associated with depression to worsen severely. 

Additionally, depression is sometimes caused by socio-economic factors like failures at work, life traumas, partner abuse, death in the family, and financial hardship. These same factors which can cause depression can be compounded by alcohol abuse. 

For someone who is already depressed due to socio-economic stressors, turning to alcohol in an attempt to manage their emotions may find themselves making their problems even worse. Alcoholism is a vicious cycle that brings with it a risk for deeper depression and even more potentially dangerous symptoms of the disorder. 

What Are the Treatments for Alcohol Abuse and Depression? 

While some of the treatments for alcohol abuse and depression vary, others have a lot in common. Treatments for alcohol abuse and depression can be conducted together to achieve rehabilitation, recovery, and a healthy outcome. 

Because alcoholism can induce depression, recovering from alcoholism and achieving sobriety is a vital step towards recovering from depression as well. This is especially true if the depression has taken hold after a person has developed a full-blown alcohol addiction. 

A few of the common treatments are listed below.

  1. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: These medications seek to stabilize the mind of an individual experiencing depression by helping to regulate serotonin levels. Rather than treating alcoholism, however, these have been known to improve the chances of a person recovering from depression. Sometimes, curing a person’s depression can help them step away from alcohol as a tool to deal with their emotions, ultimately reducing the effect depression might have on them.
  2. Naltrexone: By helping to reduce the way that alcohol can reward certain elements of a person’s brain chemistry, Naltrexone, classified as an mu receptor antagonist, does help to reduce the craving for alcohol. This can prove especially helpful for an individual attempting to quit drinking alcohol in a rehabilitation or detoxification setting. 
  3. Acamprosate: A medication that is similar to Naltrexone in that it blocks certain receptors, acamprosate blocks the cravings that can arise when a person attempts to commit to abstinence. In this way, acamprosate can help reduce the mental wear a person might experience when abstaining from drinking and quitting alcohol, the impact of which can lead to depressing thoughts or feelings. With acamprosate, the cravings for alcohol will be tamed and a person might not feel as if they are lacking the addictive substance. 
  4. Psychosocial and psychotherapeutic approaches: More traditional forms of behavioral therapy have proven to be effective for treating both alcohol abuse and treating depression. While the methods do differ in that each disorder, depression, and alcoholism, are caused by separate factors, what remains consistent is the fact that group therapy, or one on one therapy, uses the same tools to diagnose and treat disorders. 
  5. Outpatient Rehabilitation: Mostly suited to alcohol abuse, outpatient rehabilitation is a form of treatment proven to work for people who are attempting to quit drinking alcohol. Entering a rehabilitation clinic guarantees care and supervision from medical professionals trained to handle the many symptoms in which alcoholism detoxification can manifest. Sometimes a symptom can be depression, and in such instances, depression can be treated in the same setting. 

Medical professionals who practice in rehab centers are trained to understand depression as a symptom of alcoholism. Therefore, alcoholism and depression can be treated at the same time within many alcoholism treatment programs.

What is the Relationship Between Alcohol Abuse and Depression? 

The relationship between alcohol abuse and depression is complex. 

The relationship between alcohol abuse and depression has to do with the fact that depression affects some of the same neurotransmitters that regulate happiness that alcohol also interacts with. Drinking alcohol over a long period can severely limit the mind’s ability to regulate serotonin and dopamine without alcohol in the system.

Alternatively, depression might cause someone to turn to alcohol for momentary relief, an act that can develop into a habit with dangerous long-term consequences. People who come to have an alcohol use disorder are known to experience challenges in their home and work life. These problems include strained relationships, reduced productivity, and depleted energy. These symptoms overlap with the consequences of depression, which can take the form of continuous fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, overall irritability, and a lack of motivation. 

Alcoholics are more likely to experience depression during the time in which they are experiencing alcohol use disorder, and vice versa, as both disorders, seem to affect the other. This is why it’s dangerous for someone with depression to use alcohol to manage their symptoms.

Do People With Depression Drink Excessively? 

No, not everyone who has depression drinks excessively. There are many people diagnosed with some form of mild to severe depression who do not suffer from alcohol use disorder. 

Research also indicates that depression can be caused by a host of factors that are not dependent on a habit of heavy alcohol abuse. Depression has been known to affect people in every kind of walk of life, not just those who suffer from alcohol use disorder. 

It is important to note that there are some statistics regarding people who have both depression and alcohol use disorder that indicate worse symptoms for both.

Is Depression Common Amongst Alcoholics? 

Yes, depression is common amongst alcoholics. This is because alcohol use disorder and depression disorder affect similar parts of the brain and cause similar symptoms.

Depression is also common among alcoholics for other reasons. Depression is also common because alcoholism can result, or be caused by, some of the same socio-economic contributors that can lead to depression. People who become alcoholics tend to see the quality of their lives degrade as alcohol starts to consume their life. When drinking alcohol becomes a more important priority than work, family, and one’s health and well-being, that is a common time for symptoms of depression to manifest themselves. 

Does Alcohol Abuse Cause Depression?

No, alcohol abuse does not always cause depression. When dealing with mental illness, they’re typically caused by more than one factor. For example, depression can be caused by things like stress.

What someone can be sure of, however, is that alcohol abuse can cause depression. The difference is that alcohol abuse is not a surefire path to depression. People have been known to experience a variety of mental health concerns caused by their battle with alcoholism, not just strictly depression. 

Ultimately, alcohol abuse can increase the risk of depression. Alcohol also increases the risk of depression during the withdrawal/detox period. As the brain struggles to return to balance, depression can become a prominent symptom.

Does Alcohol Abuse Make Depression Worse?

Yes, alcohol abuse does make depression worse. People suffering from depression might believe that drinking will offer them temporary relaxation and release from inhibitions to cope with the stress and sadness causing their depression. However, drinking alcohol is neither the answer nor the cure. 

Occasional drinks in certain social settings might not contribute to symptoms of depression but continued abuse of alcohol is guaranteed to make depression worse. There are medicines prescribed by doctors which seek to mitigate some of the more difficult feelings associated with depression but in the modern world, none of these drugs has ever been alcohol. 

Relying on alcohol to cure depression has only been known to worsen the symptoms of depression and potentially lead to an even worse disorder. 

Can You Drink Alcohol on Depression Medication? 

No, you can not drink alcohol on depression medication. Alcohol is a potent substance that interacts with the active ingredients in other drugs in dangerous ways. Always read the active substances and warning labels on any prescribed medicine to determine whether or not alcohol is safe to mix.

Depression medications, like Lexapro, Celexa, and Prozac, for example, are strong SSRIs that raise the amount of serotonin in the brain. Although some doctors do allow for one to two drinks with antidepressants, it is essential to be mindful of the fact that alcohol interacts with these drugs in a potentially perilous way. Avoiding the mixture of both substances is always safest. 

Is Depression an Indication of Alcohol Abuse?

No, depression is not an indication of alcohol abuse. If a person is depressed, they may exhibit a host of symptoms that are not simply alcohol abuse. In fact, many people who suffer from depression indicate that they have depression by showing signs of reduced energy, diminished interest in previously enjoyable hobbies or activities, and a visible change of mood. 

Depression is not always linked to alcohol abuse but the two disorders do appear in many cases at the same time. Depression can cause a person to turn to alcohol, and alcohol abuse can cause a person to become depressed. While research is not definitive enough to suggest that depression always causes alcoholism, or that alcoholism always leads to depression, the disorders have a close enough connection to determine a link. 

It is essential for anyone experiencing either disorder or both, to seek help, as rehabilitation and therapy are both useful tools for achieving sobriety and overcoming depression.