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How Depression Leads to Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Depression and substance abuse often go hand in hand. Find out more about the relationship between depression and substance abuse, and how to seek help.

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Depression can lead to alcohol and drug abuse

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Turning to Drugs and Alcohol

For a person struggling with major depression, the allure of turning to drugs and/or alcohol is incredibly tempting in order to relieve their symptoms. It is estimated that about one-third of people diagnosed with clinical depression self-medicate with some sort of substance to improve their feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Although the chemicals found in drugs or alcohol may relieve symptoms on a temporary basis, they can also intensify depressive symptoms and increase self-destructive and risky behaviors that people with depression often engage in. Most worryingly, studies show that the lifetime risk of suicide in people that have depression increases from 10% to 25% if some sort of substance abuse is also added. 

So, how does depression lead to drug abuse? In this blog, we’re going to look at the relationship between depression and substance abuse, as well as the most common substances used by people struggling with mental health disorders.

A Bidirectional Relationship

It is not always cut and dry when it comes to the relationship between addiction and depression. In fact, this is a bidirectional relationship where those living with depression have an increased chance of developing substance abuse issues, and those living with addiction are at a higher risk of depression. When someone gets treatment for either disorder and the co-occurring disorder is picked up, then they will have what we call a “dual diagnosis.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 20% of Americans that currently have a mood disorder such as depression also have a substance use issue, and vice versa. This will most likely increase to around 50% over these people’s lifetimes.

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that around 9.5 million adults above the age of 18 in the USA have had a dual diagnosis of substance abuse and a mental health disorder like depression.

How Depression Leads to Drug Abuse

It is not uncommon for people that suffer from depression to turn to alcohol and/or drugs. Often, the root cause of this is that they use substances to escape from their perceived realities. Many people that have no mental health issues at all, will reach for a glass of wine after work to unwind, and in the same manner, this is what people struggling with depression do.

The chemicals found in alcohol and drugs can either create temporary feelings of euphoria or numb the anxiety and feelings of dread. The problem is that this feeling isn’t just temporary, but over time, the body requires more and more of the substance to produce the same result. This means that the gap between taking these substances shortens, use becomes more frequent, and over time this has the propensity to turn into an addiction.

Of course, some substances are actually not mood enhancers at all and while the temporary feeling of numbness is achieved, the chemicals could actually exacerbate depression symptoms.

How Substance Abuse Leads to Depression

As mentioned, depression does not always come first when it comes to the bidirectional relationship between mental health disorders and substance abuse. In fact, the chemical balance in the brain can be altered through the continued and frequent use of drugs and alcohol. 

Addiction is a vicious cycle as users adapt to the effects of the substance and need to use it more frequently. The consequent feelings of anger, guilt, shame, and hopelessness that are often experienced by addicts can easily lead to depression if the addict does not get help. Luckily, this type of depression is more commonly treatable once the issue of substance abuse has been dealt with.

Most Common Substances Abused by Depressed Individuals


It is completely acceptable by societal rules to use alcohol to reduce the stress around an everyday traumatic event, like a breakup or job loss. A minimal amount of alcohol undoubtedly helps to relax the body and can help to relieve stress, but the lingering effects of long-term, heavy alcohol use is incredibly detrimental on the body and the mind.

Alcohol is a depressant and according to a report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly one-third of people with alcohol dependence also have a mood disorder, such as depression. Excessive drinking can produce more severe occurrences of depression at a higher frequency. It is also known to hinder the effectiveness of some prescription antidepressant drugs.


No one can take away the medical benefits of marijuana, but when it’s combined with depression, it can cause many health problems. The euphoric effects of cannabis are the effect of chemical compounds that impact behavior, emotions, cognition, and control. Heavy marijuana use has been linked with anxiety disorders and depression, as users feel negative emotions once the high subsides.


Stimulants, like cocaine, are not just highly addictive, but they are also illegal and for good reason. Stimulants act differently from depressants like alcohol, in that they don’t relax the mind and body, but rather create intense euphoria, short-term happiness, and energy. This is particularly tempting for people with depression that struggle with prolonged sadness and fatigue.

The high from these stimulants lasts a lot longer the first time, but as the body gets used to the chemicals, this euphoria becomes shorter and less intense. Once the high fades, users will take the stimulant more frequently to return to their place of perceived happiness. The high from these types of substances can even make users believe that their depression is gone and that there is no need for professional treatment.

The chemicals in stimulants alter the chemistry within the brain and have a hugely negative impact on those that struggle with depression or other mood disorders. The most common stimulants used by people with depression include cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines, methamphetamines, prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, as well as synthetic stimulants like bath salts.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Depression and Substance Abuse

It’s important that professional treatment is received by individuals struggling with both substance use and depression, as their co-occurring use complicates both conditions. If only one of them is treated, then it’s likely that the other condition will return. 

An effective treatment plan is tailored to the individual and seeks to treat both of the issues simultaneously. This is the most effective way to help people suffering from substance abuse and depression overcome both disorders.

If you or a loved one needs any assistance with substance abuse and depression, Addiction Rehab Treatment is here to help. We specialize in dual diagnosis and use the most effective treatment plans to help those suffering from co-occurring disorders effectively. To learn more about our services, or to get help, simply get in touch with us at Addiction Rehab Treatment today.

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