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Co-Occurring Disorders: Alcohol Abuse & Depression

Co-Occurring Disorders: Alcohol Abuse & Depression

A drinking man’s someone who wants to forget
he isn’t still young and believing.”

– Tennessee Williams, author of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


It may come as a surprise to you that according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information 64% of people addicted to alcohol actually meet all the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Or it may come as no surprise at all, especially if one of those 64% is a family member or close friend. For many alcoholics in treatment, being diagnosed with depression may even come as a surprise to them, but may well answer many of their questions in the process.

In reality, the abuse of substances such as alcohol, prescription medications or illegal drugs by an individual is sometimes the very first clear sign that a pre-existing mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, had existed well before he or she began to drink or use uncontrollably. And we’re not just talking about adults. Various studies have shown that depressed children are more likely to deal with alcohol abuse issues as they grow older, and teens are twice as likely to do the same if they have suffered a bout of major depression.

Factors Associated with Alcohol Abuse & Depression

So why do alcoholism and depression co-occur in individuals so regularly? The answer is twofold. First, these disorders can develop independently of one another due to environmental and/or genetic factors. Second, one of these disorders can be a causal or contributing factor of the other.

By environmental and genetic factors, we mean:

  • Stress and/or trauma: Suffering a deeply traumatic event, such as death, divorce, or abuse (be it physical, emotional and/or sexual), and the stress associated with that, leaves the individual far more open to addiction and mental health disorders.
  • Heredity: It is now an accepted fact that a predisposition to addiction and mental health disorders can be part of a person’s genetic makeup.
  • Neurology: An imbalance, dysfunction, or deficiency of certain neurotransmitters in the brain can lead to addiction and mental health disorders.
  • Brain development: An individual who uses alcohol or drugs while the brain is still developing, such as during adolescence and young adulthood, has a greatly increased risk of mental health disorders.

With regard to one as a causal factor of the other, alcoholism (more formally known as alcohol use disorder) and clinically-diagnosed depression are strongly associated with each other. In other words, either is a likely predictor of the other as a future disorder. It really is a self-perpetuating cycle, as in the following examples of the development of co-occurring disorders:

  • Alcohol or drug abuse actually restructures how the brain functions, which can result in memory loss, confusion, mood swings, impulsive behavior, poor decision-making, and general mental instability. All of these will make the individual vulnerable to depression.
  • Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to deal with depression can have the converse effect, as the individual is then drawn into addiction.
  • As many addicts are well aware, addiction can lead to financial problems, work-related issues, strained relationships with partners, family members and friends, legal issues, and problems with health. Any one of these will damage a person’s self-esteem and confidence, which can then lead to depression.

Warning Signs of a Co-Occurring Disorder

Alcohol abuse and depression are very distinct disorders, but they do share a number of symptoms that can be confusing when determining a dual diagnosis. However, there are certain warning signs that can signal a possible co-occurring disorder:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or sadness even without the use of alcohol
  • Social isolation because of alcohol use
  • Self-medicating to deal with emotional issues
  • A daily reliance on alcohol
  • Personal or professional relationships are suffering because of the use
  • Previous abuse or trauma that has not been resolved professionally
  • Past treatment of a mental health disorder

Getting Help: Co-Occurring Diagnosis, Co-Occurring Treatment

Once the diagnosis has been established, co-occurring disorders such as alcohol use and depression require a “co-occurring treatment” plan, meaning that both conditions are regarded as the primary disorder, and relief and healing are given for both at the same period. This is by far the most effective way of treating a chemical/mental health co-occurring disorder, because failure to deal with one fully can lead to the re-emergence of the other. In fact, without treating both successfully together, a full recovery is highly unlikely.

The very first step of any co-occurring treatment plan that includes the treatment of alcohol abuse is to completely cleanse the body from alcohol (also known as “detox”). There is little chance of the recovery from either condition if the individual is not helped to lead a life of abstention.

An Achievable Recovery

A co-occurring disorder, such as alcohol abuse and depression together, does not make for an easy recovery, but it is most definitely achievable. The overriding factor in a successful recovery is professional medical help throughout the entire treatment. As a loved one or close friend of someone suffering in this way, it is imperative you understand how hard that journey will be. Reading this article and educating yourself about how you can personally assist in the process will be invaluable to the loved one concerned.

What experiences have you had of a co-occurring disorder? What advice would you offer someone in a similar position to yourself? Please feel free to share your thoughts with a comment below. Thank you.


If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Andy Macia is now 9 years sober and is an active blogger on the subject of drug and alcohol addiction. He has written this post on the mental health benefits of sobriety on behalf of Northpoint Recovery, specialists in drug and alcohol detox and rehab treatment.

Photo by Alfonso Scarpa on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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