If you’ve ever poured a glass of red wine after a challenging day at work, you know the power alcohol has to melt away stress. But alcohol isn’t a magic pill. It doesn’t make your job any less stressful, and it doesn’t make your problems go away. But, the momentary feeling is powerful. It may be why there is a strong connection between alcoholism and depression.
The relationship between drinking and depression is quite complicated. It can relieve stress but also cause significant stress. Alcohol is a substance used around the world as a social lubricator, a sedative, and a bandaid for mental health issues.
Many have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It’s a relationship that can exasperate underlying mental health conditions like depression. Although a few beers might take the pain away momentarily, there is a negative association between alcohol, depression, and mental health.
If you are struggling with depression and feel increasingly drawn towards alcohol as a coping mechanism, there are a few things you may which to know.
Two Disorders With a Long History
Depression and alcohol abuse are quite similar in their impact on society. For example, according to recent reports from 2018, there are approximately 15 million Americans with alcoholism. Of these 15 million people, only 8 percent or 1.2 million receive any treatment.
The prevalence of depression, or at least a depressive episode, are remarkably similar. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 17.3 million Americans had one or more depressive episodes in 2017. Again, the vast majority of people with depression do not get treatment, just like with alcoholism. A study based on data from 2010 to 2013 discovered only 36 percent of people who had a depressive period sought help in the following three months.
The impacts of alcoholism and depression have on the individual are very similar, as well. Both issues lead to isolation and loneliness. They can impact career success and academic work. They also change the dynamic of relationships, as friends and family members become increasingly concerned or cut off.
Alcohol abuse and dependence disorders are commonly associated with other mental health issues, like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. When two illnesses (psychological or physical) occur at the same time, this is called comorbidity. But does alcohol cause depression? Or does depression lead to alcoholism? The correlation can go in both directions.
Does Alcohol Cause Depression?
For many years, drinking and depression were both assumed to be symptoms of a deeper underlying issue. Essentially manifestations of another mental health condition. This theory has been disproven, but it helps create a framework for just how complicated the relationship is between these two disorders.
Depression and alcohol abuse are bedfellows, but researchers are now confident that “distinct illnesses with different prognoses and treatments.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between the two.
Although some people use alcohol as a social lubricator and rely on it for its uplifting effects, technically, “Alcohol is classified as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity.” As such, depressive symptoms can appear with alcohol abuse or dependence. The research does suggest that if drinking stops, then eventually, the symptoms of depression will subside.
On the flip side, alcohol for depression can intensify the problem. Alcohol for depression, although numbing, is not a cure. It will only postpone and aggravate the issue. It is a superficial bandaid, not a solution.
Does Alcohol Make Depression Worse?
The short answer is, yes. Drinking is an avoidance strategy to ignore the issues at hand temporarily. Alcohol is a way to “escape from the self,” and therefore, it can easily make symptoms of depression worse.
Many of the most challenging aspects of depression are worsened by alcohol. Suicidal feelings become more intense, plus alcohol increases risk-taking behavior, meaning drinking may transform suicide ideation into a real-life attempt. According to AFMC HealthSpot, “Alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression as the most frequent suicide risk factor.” Another report, “Suicidal Behavior and Alcohol Abuse” published in 2010 detailed that in “Post-mortem investigations have revealed that alcohol was in the blood of 45% of Swedish, 36–40% in Finnish, 35–48% of Estonian; 28–29% of American and 20% of Dutch suicide victims.”
Men are especially at risk of turning to alcohol for depression. Depression is still a taboo subject for many circles, and among men, this is especially so. Men seek to self-soothe with alcohol much more frequently with women and are more likely to avoid seeking professional help. When combined with alcohol, this is a dangerous cocktail.
AMFC Healthspot reports, “men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide.” Historical studies have long detailed the increased risk for factors between drinking and depression for men. For example, men are much more likely than women to become daily drinkers if they also have depression.
Alcohol abuse and dependence does have serious implications, which creep across all areas of one’s life. That means into relationships, into the office, and can lead to devastating financial repercussions. As the effects of alcoholism become increasingly apparent, this serves to deepen the associated depression. It may become a vicious circle if left untreated.
Is Alcohol Abuse Associated with the Onset of Depression?
Few people with alcohol abuse issues are happy. By some estimates, between 30 to 40 percent of people with alcohol abuse or dependence issues have some form of depressive disorder. This number is likely much higher, as many don’t seek help for these mental health issues.
Long term alcohol abuse causes measurable differences in neurological function. The impacts are so severe they are often referred to as brain damage. These dramatic changes in the very wiring of the human brain may make it more susceptible to other mental health issues – like depression.
What are the Treatment Options for Alcoholism and Depression?
Importantly, if you are currently in crisis, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. They offer immediate support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are there to listen and provide additional resources and guidance on how to get through the crisis.
No matter which one comes first, depression and alcoholism are regularly engaged in a vicious downward spiral. If you or a loved one is currently battling depression and alcohol abuse, know that these are common comorbid conditions. Healthcare professionals working with one condition, frequently also work with the other. There is a lot of overlap between treatments.
The treatment of alcohol abuse and dependence relies on cessation of drinking, management of withdrawal, and then support during the open-ended transformation.
There are many versions of alcohol addiction treatment, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), one-on-one therapy, rehabilitation programs, and even interventions with healthcare professionals. Typically a treatment plant involves a combination of more than one.
There are also many approaches to the treatment of depressive disorders, including medication-based strategies, talk-therapy, and inpatient treatment. Again, a holistic approach may rely on several different treatment options.
Because depression and alcohol abuse are so intertwined, most often, both are treated as a package. By addressing only one of the mental health concerns, there is a high likelihood of relapse into old patterns of behavior. You cannot solve one problem without examining the other.
First and foremost comes detox, and detoxing opens up into a depressive episode. It’s in this sober space where talk-therapy and support groups are beneficial for managing other mental health conditions. According to Alcohol.org, “Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Contingency Management, and relapse prevention therapy have all proven very effective for individual and group therapy for co-occurring depression and [alcohol use disorder].”
A Dangerous Duo, Drinking, and Depression
Alcohol abuse and depression are commonly experienced together as if they were a single disorder. While we know these are separate conditions, they are nevertheless often intimately connected. Depression can aggravate alcoholism, and alcohol abuse can exacerbate depression.
When these two conditions are experienced together, you can expect more extreme outcomes. As mentioned, because alcohol increases risky behavior and lowers inhibitions, it also increases the risk of suicide, especially among men.
Because alcohol provides temporary, if false, sense of relief, it is very tempting as a solution to depression. Does alcohol cause depression? Not always, but frequently enough that it is a serious concern. Alcohol and depression are very challenging when experienced together, and a very dangerous duo.