It’s common for individuals struggling with substance use disorders to also struggle with depression. In fact, researchers have found that 43% of people being treated for substance use disorders also have a diagnosis of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. Researchers do not believe that one diagnosis necessarily causes a person to develop the other, but they are aware that the conditions often happen together and the interactions between the two can worsen symptoms. So, what exactly is the link between substance use and depression? Let’s explore these two related concerns.
Common Risk Factors For Substance Use and Depression
When it comes to determining the link between substance abuse and depression, there appear to be three shared risks.
Genetics is believed to comprise anywhere from 40 to 60% of a person’s vulnerability to substance abuse. Genetic predisposition also increases an individual’s chance of developing depression or another disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
It’s not only depression that afflicts individuals struggling with substance use disorder. NIDA finds that alongside depression, other conditions including bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder are the most common mental health disorders that co-occur among people dealing with substance use disorders.
2. Environmental Factors
The second risk factor found among people dealing with both substance abuse and depression is environmental. The human body interacts with the outside world on a molecular level that can affect an individual’s health and decision making. Factors like chronic stress, exposure to drugs, and traumatic experiences (especially as a child) have been shown to alter an individual’s neural circuits and even change their behavior.
Exposure to what mental health professionals call “adverse childhood experiences” such as assault, abuse, crime, and poverty can make people more likely to suffer from substance use disorders, depression, and anxiety as they get older. Researchers have also found that individuals who suffer from chronic stress and instability as adults are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, as well.
3. Similar Changes in the Brain
Finally, an individual dealing with a mental disorder and an individual coping with a substance use disorder show changes in similar areas of the brain. For instance, the brain circuits that control decision making and emotional control have both been shown to be affected by addictive substances and mental health conditions like depression. This suggests that our brains are vulnerable to both addiction and mental health challenges in similar ways.
Though research is ongoing, scientists also understand that imbalances in the brain’s chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, are linked to both depression and addiction. For example, dopamine, the “feel-good chemical” responsible for feelings of reward and motivation in the brain, spikes when addictive substances enter the bloodstream. On the other hand, low levels of serotonin, which regulates many of our bodily functions, have been linked to depression.
Depression and Substance Abuse: A Challenging Cycle
We’ve shown how depression and substance use share similar risk factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and the structure of the brain.
While researchers continue to study the relationship between these two challenges — including which typically comes first — we do know that depression can worsen substance use and vice versa.
For example, some individuals may choose to “self-medicate” their depression through substance use, which can quickly develop into addiction. In other cases, people struggling with substance use challenges can fall into depression if they feel they are unable to recover.
This is why it’s important that individuals struggling with both substance use disorders and depression seek the appropriate treatment from an experienced and licensed provider.
Dealing with a Dual Diagnosis
A diagnosis of depression and substance abuse is also known as a dual diagnosis, meaning an individual is managing both a mental health disorder and substance use disorder at the same time. Although treatment options have improved in recent years, too often those with a dual diagnosis do not receive treatment for both of their challenges, if they receive treatment at all.
The key to dealing with substance abuse and depression is an integrated treatment approach that works to handle both issues at once. This allows a collaborative approach between mental health and addiction treatment professionals to determine a coordinated treatment that can truly assist an individual in their recovery. Since the mid-1990s, nearly ten studies have indicated that an integrated treatment is the most effective method for treating a dual diagnosis.
When searching for a dual diagnosis treatment program, it’s important to choose a program that uses this integrated approach to treat both depression and addiction equally. You can read more about dual diagnosis here and talk to a member of the Into Action Recovery team at any time.