Across the United States, there are approximately 21 million people battling a substance use disorder. From alcoholism to opioid addiction, prescription drug abuse to compulsive marijuana use, Americans are struggling with all types of drug problems. Many are struggling with disorders beyond addiction, too.
According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and recent national surveys, more than one-third of Americans who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse also suffer from depression. In fact, rates of depression are three times higher in people with substance dependence than the general population.
Drugs and depression affect the same areas of the brain, rewriting the parts that are associated with pleasure and pain. People who use drugs may experience chemical-induced depressive thoughts while high, or even shortly after, during withdrawal. On the other hand, people with depression often experience a dire need to escape reality or numb their feelings… and turn to drugs to do so.
That’s where the concept of self-medication comes in.
There are so many reasons that a person might turn to drugs – peer pressure, experimentation, recreation – but one of the biggest incentives is to cope with darker demons inside them. Too often, people reach for drugs to forget a past trauma, to erase physical or emotional abuse, to relieve stress, to ease emotional discomfort, and to try to reduce symptoms of an underlying mental illness (depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, etc.). In other words, they self-medicate with drugs rather than seek out a longer-term solution.
While it may give users a fleeting sense of euphoria, self-medicating depression with drugs can only complicate things long-term. Because drugs chemically alter a person’s brain, they actually exacerbate the mental issues and emotional pain that a person is experiencing. Drugs are not a solution. They are a temporary fix. Long-term, a person may grow reliant on drugs to be happy. An addiction can develop.
The problem is, many teens and young adults don’t recognize these dangers. In fact, many young people who are struggling with depression do not always know it (or show it) and instead, mask their negative feelings with things that alter their minds – drugs and alcohol.
According to the 2016 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, over one million adolescents (ages 12 to 17) were battling a drug or alcohol disorder in 2016. An estimated 333,000 adolescents had both a substance use disorder and a major depressive episode that year. This translates to a harrowing statistic: one-third of teenagers that have drug and alcohol problems also struggle with depression. These co-occurring disorders are also called dual diagnosis.
Unfortunately, teens struggling with dual diagnosis do not always get the help they need. In 2016, only 5 percent of teens suffering received both mental health care and specialty substance use treatment. Rather than getting dual diagnosis treatment, too many self-medicate their depression. And as a result, many fall into the cycle of addiction.
The connection between mental health and addiction is clear—both disrupting the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and makes decisions. It’s no wonder why teens and young adults who experience major depressive episodes are more likely to abuse marijuana, prescription drugs (such as pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives), inhalants, and hallucinogens, according to the above survey.
What Depression Looks Like in Young People
Do you believe your loved one – your son, daughter, sibling, friend – is struggling with depression? Depression is a mood disorder that can present itself on a continuum of mild to severe, and in a variety of diagnoses: Major Depressive Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder are some examples. Depression can lead to tremendous suffering in adolescents and young adults, often making them feel isolated, unwanted, unworthy, and in emotional pain.
Of course, the severity of depression can vary, and the intensity of symptoms will depend on a person’s diagnosis, age, and situation. If a person with depression is using drugs, symptoms may be exacerbated. Generally speaking, though, most depressive disorders are characterized by:
- Lack of energy and increased desire to sleep
- Difficulty sleeping, whether that be more than normal or insomnia
- Lack of pleasure in day-to-day activities
- Low, “downer” mood
- Increased body aches, pains, and sickness
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Feelings of sadness and emptiness
- Irritability and hostility
- Weight changes
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Signs of Self-Medicating Depression
If you believe your loved one is masking their depression with drug use, or using drugs and alcohol to escape emotional toils, know there are signs you can look for that can indicate dual diagnosis treatment is needed. If your loved one is self-medicating depression, he or she will:
- Drink or use drugs in highly emotional situations, where stress, anger, sadness, or other uncomfortable feelings are present
- Withdraw from family and friends
- Grow more secretive and uncommunicative about what he or she does to pass time
- Exhibit more mood swings and slumps, the more he or she gets high
- Experience more social problems, with friends and relationships
- Lose interest in once-loved hobbies and friend groups
- Lack motivation at work or in school
- Care less about personal appearance and care
- Become more hostile and reactive, with sudden lashes in anger
- Have new, uncharacteristic financial problems due to the expense of drugs and alcohol
Self-Medicating Depression is Not an Alternative to Dual Diagnosis Treatment
Self-medicating depression can do more harm than good: it can detriment a person’s physical health, it can worsen a person’s mental health, and it can lead to chronic drug problems down the road. You see, when a person relies on drugs to feel good or happy with themselves, they tend to do it regularly. And when you use drugs regularly, for a long period of time, your body and brain physically start to need them to function properly. That is when the addiction cycle kicks in.
About 45 percent of Americans seeking addiction treatment today have been diagnosed with a co-occurring mental disorder like depression.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends that co-occurring depressive and substance use disorders be treated simultaneously, with an integrated approach. Especially for young people, treatment must address both their substance abuse issues and their mental health problems, and understand them in relation to one another, in order to be effective. This approach is known as integrated dual diagnosis treatment.
Dual diagnosis treatment focuses on the client: addressing his or her goals, individual background and needs, and tailoring treatment strategies to those very things. Treatment strategies may include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Enhancement Therapy, and other evidence-based modalities for young people struggling with co-occurring disorders.
According to SAMHSA, getting both substance use and mental disorders treated at the same, in a dual diagnosis rehab center, is typically associated with better outcomes. These often include:
- Reduced or abstained substance use
- Improved psychiatric symptoms and functioning
- Increased housing stability
- Fewer legal troubles and arrests
- Decreased hospitalization
- Improved quality of life
- Healthier habits, such as exercise
- Realistic goal-setting
- More time with loved ones
If your loved one is struggling with depression and a drug problem – especially if you are concerned about self-medication – please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. We are a young adult, dual diagnosis treatment center for young women and men battling addiction. Contact us at 877-581-1793 to learn how you can get your loved one back on the path to a drug-free, meaningful, happy life.