Alcoholism and depression are two different conditions, but research shows they are frequently linked. Recognition of the link between depression and alcoholism is important to understanding the development of the two conditions and especially to the development of an effective treatment plan. One condition can complicate the other and can make treatment and recovery more challenging.
Research shows that between 30 and 50 percent of individuals with alcohol dependence also suffer from major depression during one or more of the stages of the disease and about 30 percent of people with major depression also have a drinking problem. In addition to the array of debilitating alcoholism-related symptoms, the individual also may experience excessive fatigue, lack of energy, anxiousness and suicidal thoughts when their condition is complicated by clinical depression.
Both depression and alcoholism have a genetic component that increases an individual’s vulnerability. Both may also develop as a result of life circumstances, such as a trauma or loss. Moreover, each can aggravate the onset of the other condition.
It can be hard to figure out which came first, alcoholism or depression. It’s a bit like the old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Alcohol itself is a depressant, so drinking can cause a depressed mood. Alcoholism often leads to problems in relationship, difficulty keeping a job, financial problems and even legal trouble, all of which could make anyone feel hopeless and depressed. Someone might then begin to drink even more in an attempt to escape from his problems, if only temporarily.
On the other hand, someone that feels a little depressed might take a drink to feel better. While that might work temporarily, the depression will return, maybe worse than before. That can lead someone to drink more and more, hoping to get relief. As the drinking begins to create problems at home and at work, the depression only worsens.
It may not really matter much which comes first. The important thing is to be aware of the existence of both conditions. The combination of illnesses puts people at greater risk of self-harm from accidents or suicide. Good judgment and decision-making are further compromised and impulsivity increases, which advances the seriousness of the conditions.
Those who suffer from depression and alcoholism should seek immediate help by contacting a qualified healthcare professional who can facilitate a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that addresses both disorders. Treating only one disorder but not the other is unlikely to lead to significant improvement. For this reason, people seeking treatment for alcoholism should also be assessed for depression and those seeking help for depression should also be assessed for alcoholism as well as other forms of substance abuse and addiction.
Treatment for co-occurring alcoholism and depression may include a period of detoxification and withdrawal from alcohol, as well as individual and group therapy designed to help the patient address his or her alcoholism and depression.
Medication may be prescribed to ease the withdrawal process, help with depression recovery and reduce alcohol cravings. Antidepressants must be used carefully in people with a history of alcoholism, though, because many of these drugs are not safe to take with alcohol. If the patient starts drinking again while taking antidepressant medication, serious and potentially dangerous complications may results. In addition, alcohol can lessen the effectiveness of many antidepressants (1).
Some people many need a period of inpatient treatment, while others may begin with outpatient care. Intensive outpatient programs allow people to spend several hours a day in treatment while still remaining at home with their families. A professional can help determine the appropriate level of care.
When both alcohol abuse and depression are present, recovery may be more difficult, though it is certainly achievable. The risk of relapse may be greater and the need for ongoing care is critical.
People in the early stages of alcohol withdrawal may experience an increased level of depression. Yet, these symptoms typically stop within the first thirty days of sobriety. Intensive support may be needed to help them get through this critical period.
For sustained recovery management, individuals may remain in ongoing counseling and attend regular self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Family members of the alcoholic are typically encouraged to participate in counseling and support groups, as well. This helps family members more effectively support the patient during recovery, as well as allowing family members to address their own issues related to the alcoholic’s drinking problem.
(1) WebMD: Alcohol and Depression