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Depression and Addiction


Depression and addiction often co-occur. Learn all about this disorder and how to find effective treatment help.

Depression and addiction are two of the most common co-occurring mental health disorders. When these two conditions co-exist, they can leave you unable to manage daily tasks while slowly stripping away all quality of life.

If you’ve battled depression for any length of time, you know how feelings of sadness and discouragement can sap your energy and zest for life. If you’ve abused drugs or alcohol, you also know how quickly these substances can make everything seem better.

Herein lie the dangers that come with depression and addiction. The temporary reprieve addictive substances bring comes with a price that gets bigger with each passing day.

Statistics on Depression and Addiction

  • According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, as of 2014, an estimated 7.9 million adults in the United States live with co-occurring mental health problems, such as depression and addiction
  • Of the total number of individuals struggling with co-occurring disorders, only 12 percent get the level of treatment needed for both conditions
  • 20 percent of people battling major depression experience psychotic symptoms
  • 27 percent of people affected by major depressive disorders also have a drug or alcohol addiction
  • 2.4 percent of full-time employees struggle with co-occurring mental illness and addiction problems

Causes of Depression and Addiction

Causes of depression and addiction are fairly similar, with many possible factors influencing your likelihood of developing one, or the other or both. Conditions that can make you more vulnerable include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Long-term life difficulties, such as living with an abusive partner, loneliness, high stress job, unemployment
  • Experiencing several disappointing events all at once, such as job loss, the death of a loved one and relationship problems
  • Poor coping skills, such as a tendency towards worrying, low self-esteem or being hard on yourself
  • Chronic medical problems, such as a pain-related conditions
  • Past history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse

According to WebMD, certain medications may even cause depression, such as the antiviral drug interferon-alpha.

Forms of Depression and Addiction to Watch For

Forms of depression and addiction run the gamut in terms of the range of addictive substances available and the types of depression that can develop.

Addictive substances used may include:

  • Prescription pain pills
  • Heroin
  • Prescription stimulant drugs like Ritalin
  • Cocaine
  • Alcohol
  • Sedative drugs like Valium and Xanax
  • Marijuana
  • LSD

As far as depression goes, there are four main types, according to Harvard Health Publishing. These include:

  • Major depression – where feelings of sadness and despair become all-consuming
  • Bipolar disorder – where depression episodes alternate with periods of mania or high energy and excitement
  • Seasonal affective disorder – where feelings of depression develop during fall and winter seasons
  • Persistent depressive disorder – a mild level of depression that lasts for two or more years

Underlying Links Between Depression and Addiction

Relationships between depression and addiction exist on multiple levels, with both conditions changing how the brain works over time. These two conditions interact with the areas of the brain that regulate mood states and thinking processes, which enables them to work together in harmful ways when both are present.

Feelings of depression result from low levels of serotonin and dopamine, two brain chemicals that help regulate pain and pleasure sensations. The “high” effects that drugs and alcohol produce result from increases in neurotransmitter production, which offers a quick fix from depression symptoms.

With most all addictive substances, feelings of depression develop as a withdrawal effect once the “high” wears off. In effect, each successive withdrawal episode makes depression symptoms worse. These developments work to drive continued substance abuse.

Short-Term Effects of Depression and Addiction

Most everyone feels sad or down in the dumps every now and then. These feelings come and go. When a down mood lasts for two weeks or longer, something more serious is likely at work.

Short-term effects of depression cause problems within other areas of your life, such as relationships, health and your ability to meet daily obligations. Using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate can quickly turn into a way to cope with depression.

Before long, other problems will start to develop, including:

  • Poor work/school performance
  • Mood swings
  • Problems sleeping
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Growing loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

Long-Term Effects of Depression and Addiction

Depression and Addiction

Untreated depression and addiction can lead to a fatal drug overdose.

Depression, in and of itself, carries a long list of harmful long-term effects, many of which can be dangerous and even deadly. The added effects of a drug or alcohol addiction speed up the rate of decline you experience.

When left untreated, depression not only disrupts your mood but also your immune system, according to Mayo Clinic. Over time, the body’s systems weaken, leaving you more susceptible to sickness and serious medical problems, such as infections and malnutrition. Considering how the effects of addiction only make depression symptoms worse, there’s an even greater risk of developing medical problems.

Other long-term effects of depression and addiction include:

  • Thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts
  • Drug overdose
  • Psychiatric hospitalization
  • Mental confusion
  • Frequent accidents and injuries

Signs You or Someone You Know Struggles with Depression and Addiction

Signs you or someone you know struggles with depression and addiction will likely show up within your day-to-day life affairs. These will be noticeable changes that make daily living more difficult.

Signs to watch for include:

  • A growing sense of hopelessness
  • Increasing drug cravings
  • Needing drugs or alcohol to face the day
  • Feelings of worthlessness and/or guilt
  • Loss of appetite or increase in appetite
  • Noticeable loss of weight or gain in weight
  • Inability to concentrate or stay on task
  • Money problems
  • Failing relationships

Whether you’re just now noticing the effects of depression and addiction or have struggled with these conditions for a long time, it’s never too late to look into treatment options.

Treatment Options for Depression and Addiction

Both depression and addiction affect different people in different ways, so there’s no single treatment approach that works for everyone. More than anything else, the severity of your condition will determine the level of treatment you’ll need to overcome depression’s effects and maintain continued abstinence from substance abuse.

According to the University of California-San Francisco, talk therapies and medication treatments work well at providing symptom relief from depression, while helping you develop a drug/alcohol-free lifestyle.

Detox Treatment

Detox treatment is an essential first step towards breaking the vicious cycle of depression and addiction. Detox programs take place within a closed treatment setting so you can focus on the recovery process.

These programs use medication treatments that provide relief from uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, including depression. From day-to-day, you’ll take part in ongoing behavior-based treatment sessions that help you better understand the drug abuse cycle while working through some of the emotional issues that fuel drug and alcohol-using behaviors.

Inpatient and Residential Treatment

Inpatient and residential programs offer different levels of care to address the aftereffects of depression and addiction. Inpatient programs treat the most severe cases where both medical and psychological problems are present. If you’re struggling with medical problems or other types of mental disorders on top of depression and addiction, these programs provide the level treatment support you’ll need.

Residential programs focus on helping you develop the types of thinking and behaviors that support a happy, substance-free lifestyle. These programs work well in cases where serious medical problems are not an issue.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient programs allow you to live at home while attending treatment sessions around your current schedule, which can work well if you have family or work responsibilities to meet. According to the Journal of Psychiatric Clinics of North America, treatment sessions may include one or more of the following interventions:

  • One-on-one psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Support groups
  • Drug education and counseling

Medication Therapies

Medication therapies can be of great help in restoring the brain’s chemical balance back to normal. If your condition is severe, medications may be used to treat depression as well as addiction, though currently, therapies are only available for opiate and alcohol-based addictions.

Medications commonly used in depression treatment include:

  • Celexa
  • Cymbalta
  • Wellbutrin
  • Tofranil
  • Marplan

Medications used in addiction treatment include:

  • Anatabuse (for alcohol)
  • Campral (for alcohol)
  • Methadone (for opiates)
  • Buprenorphine (for opiates)

When to Consider Getting Treatment Help

According to the journal of The Behavioral Analyst, depression creates its own syndrome of symptoms that essentially takes over the major areas of your life. When combined with the effects of addiction, the need for treatment becomes all the more pressing.

If you’ve developed a pattern of drug or alcohol abuse in the face of a depression problem, it’s time to consider getting treatment help.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Co-occurring Disorders.
  2. WebMD. (2016). Causes of Depression.
  3. Harvard Health Publishing (Harvard Medical School). (2017). Six Common Depression Types.
  4. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).
  5. University of California, San Francisco. (n.d.). Treatments for Depression.
  6. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. (2010). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mood Disorders: Efficacy, Moderators and Mediators.
  7. The Behavioral Analyst. (2008). The Nature of Clinical Depression: Symptoms, Syndromes, and Behavior Analysis. 
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