For much of my life, I have struggled with depression. Depression is a frustrating disorder to be diagnosed with, as it is unpredictable and doesn’t always make sense. It’s often difficult to escape from, which is why many people, such as myself, find comfort in alcohol and/or drugs. Using such substances allows depression to be covered up, in a sense. But it also leads to a vicious cycle of substance abuse and feelings of despair.
The truth is that it’s not uncommon for those who struggle with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety to turn to substances like alcohol and drugs. This is called a co-occurring disorder, or may also be referred to as a dual diagnosis.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2014, 7.9 million adults in the United States had co-occurring disorders. The organization also states, “People with mental health disorders are more likely than people without mental health disorders to experience an alcohol or substance use disorder. Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to diagnose due to the complexity of symptoms, as both may vary in severity.”
Because there is a clear connection between addiction and depression, the two disorders have have some similarities. But they also have differences.
How Addiction And Depression Are Similar
They are isolating. For many who struggle with depression, the thought of being around people is simply too much. Instead of forcing yourself to get up and go out and spend time around people, you may retreat into isolation. This can be dangerous because it allows you to continue to dwell on feelings of depression. When substance abuse is added into the equation, this becomes even more dangerous. For people such as myself, who turned to a substance in order to deal with depression, it makes sense to use that substance alone so that others are not aware of the potential problem. For someone who is already isolating themselves and then drinking or using drugs while in isolation, the results can be disastrous.
They take a toll on your sense of self. Depression can be tricky because it has a way of convincing you of things that simply are not true. When you feel depressed, you feel like a lesser person. You feel alone and scared and confused, with no real reasons why. Feeling this way can be detrimental to the way you think of yourself. Likewise, alcohol and drugs can have this effect. Sure, it’s true that using drugs or alcohol may make you feel better about yourself for some period of time. But using such substances is often followed by a feeling of shame about things you may have said or done while under the influence, or simply shame about the fact that you turned to a substance in the first place. As time passes, you will likely find that substance abuse begins to have a negative impact on the way you view yourself.
They both feel beyond your control. To put it bluntly, feeling out of control sucks. And it sucks even more when there are two disorders at work in your life and you feel like you lack control over both. Addiction and depression are both diseases, and like most diseases, if left untreated they will progress. Depression sets in with no control, but given the right tools, it can be managed. The same is true of addiction. It may feel beyond your control to overcome alcohol or drugs, but with the right course of action, addiction can be overcome. The trick to getting control of both disorders is taking the first step and realizing you need help, then asking for that help.
How Addiction And Depression Are Different
One involves a substance, one involves a chemical imbalance. This may sound obvious, but it’s true. Yes, the substance and the chemical imbalance feed off one another. But the bottom line is that without a substance to abuse, addiction would not be an issue. And without an imbalance of chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, depression would not be an issue. Though the two disorders intertwine in many ways, they are different at the root.
The treatment methods differ. While it’s important to treat co-occurring disorders at the same time, the treatment for each disorder is not identical. For example, one way to treat depression is by prescribing a medication, often referred to as an antidepressant. This medication helps balance the chemical levels in the brain, with the hope that depression will subside. However, simply medicating a person for depression will not cure them of depression or addiction. Work has to be done on both levels. For most people, this means getting to the root of why a substance is abused and identifying what can be done instead of turning to that substance. Treating depression at the same time as a person is receiving treatment for addiction makes it more likely that both disorders will be able to be managed well in the future.
Of course, there are other ways in which depression and addiction are similar and different. But the most important thing to note is that when an individual struggles with both disorders, then both disorders need to be treated. Simply pushing one to the side to focus on the other will likely do no good in the long run. It’s important to treat the two as a unit rather than two separate disorders.
Co-Occurring Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed 30 May 2017. https://www.samhsa.gov/disorders/co-occurring