What is Depression?

Depression cannot be defined, as there are various types of depression. However, depression is treatable. But, when combined with substances (drugs/alcohol), the condition can worsen. Depression is considered a mental health disorder that can profoundly impact one’s life—it will color how a person feels about everything and how one feels about oneself. The severity of the negative feeling can be debilitating.

Substance Use Disorders (SUD) can bring on depression, or it can worsen a pre-existing depressive state.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression can be mild or severe. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood (low)
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Physical ailments such as thyroid problems, vitamin deficiency, or other serious medical conditions can mimic symptoms of depression. Without adding substance abuse to the picture, these are some of the more severe forms of depression:

  • “Major depression, which includes symptoms of depression most of the time for at least 2 weeks that typically interfere with one’s ability to work, sleep, study, and eat.
  • Persistent depressive disorder (also called dysthymia), which often includes less severe symptoms of depression that last much longer, typically for at least 2 years.
  • Perinatal depression, which occurs when a woman experiences major depression during pregnancy or after delivery (postpartum depression).
  • Seasonal affective disorder, which comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in late fall and early winter and going away during spring and summer.
  • Depression with symptoms of psychosis, which is a severe form of depression where a person experiences psychosis symptoms, such as delusions (disturbing, false fixed beliefs) or hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that others do not see or hear).”

The group mentioned above does not include bipolar disorders. Loss of a job, loss of a loved one, a physical assault, or any other form of intimate loss can bring on feelings of sadness and grief. These are not the same as depression. Though, how one deals with the sense of loss can lead to a depressive episode.

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the nation. Depression can affect 1 in 15 adults in any year. Women are more likely than men to experience depression, but that is not to say that men do not experience depression. Studies have shown that the pandemic has had a profound negative impact on people’s (men and women) mental health as well as the increase in the use of alcohol and drugs.

A person dealing with the overwhelming sense of helplessness or a feeling of being “other than” can often lead a person to self-medicate. When a person feels lost, hopeless, or has feelings of self-loathing, he/she/they may turn to illicit drugs or abuse drugs prescribed by a physician. The latest government National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that:

  • Among the 138.5 million people who were current alcohol users, 61.6 million were classified as binge drinkers and 17.7 million (28.8 percent of current binge drinkers and 12.8 percent of current alcohol users) were classified as heavy drinkers. 
  • More than 59.3 million people 12 or older used illicit drugs in the past year, including 49.6 million who used marijuana. 
  • In 2020, 4.2 million adolescents 12 to 17 received mental health services in a specialty setting in the past year. 
  • An estimated 41.4 million adults 18 or older in 2020 received inpatient or outpatient mental health services or took prescription medication for a mental health issue in the past year. 

Correlation Between Depression and Substance Abuse

Both conditions involve the same brain chemistry and pathways. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is made in the brain. It is a chemical messenger between nerve cells, the brain, the brain, and the rest of the body. One of the functions of dopamine is the sensation of pleasure, though it performs many other functions. Addiction is one of the diseases associated with high levels of dopamine. Regular SUD creates changes in the brain that impact the brain’s ability to communicate clearly with the cells and organs in the body. It affects the body’s ability to make appropriate choices.

People who self-medicate and take substances to manage their depression are only worsening their mental health condition because of the changes in the brain and because the cause of the depression remains untreated.

Because drugs change the chemistry of the brain, the pathways of communication, and the ability to function, drugs can create mental health conditions such as depression.

For example, in a recent study, college students who use amphetamine stimulants also suffered from depression, diarrhea, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and nicotine cravings. What many people who use alcohol and drugs do not understand is that many of these drugs: alcohol, marijuana, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, opioids, Zoloft, Celexa Wellbutrin, Xanax, Klonipin, Ativan, Valium, Ambien, Prilosec, Nexium some hormone replacement drugs and many others have a side effect of depression or are depressants.

“People with SUDs are more likely than those without SUDs to have co-occurring mental disorders. Addiction counselors encounter clients with CODs [people with co-occurring disorders and SUDs] as a rule, not an exception. Mental disorders likely to co-occur with addiction include depressive disorders, bipolar I disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders (PDs), anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, ADHD, and eating and feeding disorders.”

Treatment and Mental Health Services

Best practices for treating SUDs must also include mental health evaluations and education. A licensed treatment facility with a team of addiction experts (physicians, nurses, clinicians, etc.) is needed to continually evaluate and modify a treatment plan for someone suffering from depression and SUD. Indeed, the cause of a client’s depression requires identification: is it a pre-existing condition, or is it a response to the drugs that have changed the brain? Without treating both conditions, it is more than likely a person will relapse and return to substance use.

If you or a loved one is suffering from SUD and depression, call now to speak with a trained staff member who can answer your questions and help you arrange for the appropriate treatment.