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Depression and Addiction

Depression and addiction often go hand in hand, fueling each other. Breaking that cycle can be difficult, but it is possible with professional help and support.

Overview of Depression

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has compiled a list of symptoms that can be useful in developing an introductory familiarity with depression. According to NIMH, signs of depression include:

  • Low levels of energy.
  • A continued sad, worried, or hollow mood.
  • Overall irritability or mood swings.
  • Lack of interest in hobbies and regular activities.
  • Slow movements and speech.
  • Feeling agitated.
  • Difficulty focusing.
  • Reduced decision-making abilities
  • Physical issues, such as pain or digestive problems, that have no identified cause. These symptoms may not improve with symptom treatment.
  • Problems sleeping.
  • Feelings of futility.
  • Major fluctuations in appetite or weight.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.
  • Attempts at self-harm
  • Feelings of remorse, shame, or powerlessness

While many people feel these things from time to time, if such symptoms persist for over two weeks, an individual is likely suffering from depression.

Most people who go through depression will experience some, not all, of the above symptoms.

While it is more common with adults, children can also struggle from depression.

Depression and Addiction


There are many reasons people try drugs. People who struggle with substance abuse come from all walks of life.

One common reason people try drugs is for relief. Drugs can flood the brain and body with chemicals that make someone feel good and euphoric. They may also allow one to temporarily forget stressors in life.

Depression is a difficult illness to deal with, and it can dramatically lower overall quality of life. For some people, drugs represent an easy way to find temporary escape from that sadness. Even if substance abuse provides temporary relief, it ultimately makes things worse in the long run. 

Both this relief and the chemicals causing it can lead to addiction and dependence. As noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is a chronic disease characterized by partaking in repeated dangerous behaviors (in this case, taking drugs) in a compulsive way. This abuse occurs even when the person is aware of the damage drug use is causing in their body and life.

People with chronic depression will often take depressant drugs like alcohol to numb their pain. The National Institute on Alcohol Addiction and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that alcoholism and depression often coincide.

Depressants can cause further symptoms of depression, leading to more lethargy, hopelessness, and anxiety. Depressants are not the only drugs that can do this. Many different substances of abuse can worsen depression.

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Dangerous Cycles

Depression and drug abuse are a dangerous mix.

The abuse can easily begin a cycle that looks like this.

  • Someone with depression takes a drug or drinks to experience relief from their depression.
  • The substance provides temporary relief or at least a perceived feeling of temporary relief.
  • The depressed person begins to take more of the substance and takes it more consistently to chase that relief.
  • The substance abuse damages the person’s quality of life in some way — fading social life, problems in school and at work, health issues — which leads to further depression.
  • Being more depressed, the person now seeks out more relief via alcohol or drugs.

At some point in this cycle, even if the person is “self-medicating” purely in an attempt to alleviate their depression, they may become addicted to the given substance. The abuse may begin to seriously damage all areas of their life.

What Commonly Abused Substances Do People With Depression Use?

While any drug that provides perceived relief has the potential to be abused by someone with depression, there are a few drugs that are more commonly abused by those with depression. Not all drugs are equally destructive, but essentially any drug that provides relief can potentially be abused if taken improperly or in excess, even if legally available or originally prescribed to the individual.

Many people who are depressed smoke. The  U.S. National Institute of Mental Health estimates people with psychiatric disorders purchase 44 percent of all cigarettes sold. While the link is not fully understood, there seems to be some direct correlation between people who are depressed and smoking, including higher instances of inhaling secondhand smoke.

There even may be shared genetic triggers. Essentially, if one is prone to depression, they are also prone to be addicted to smoking.

Smoking does not relieve depression symptoms even temporarily, at least beyond any placebo effect. The temporary relief from the addiction might ease the mind, even when most people know that smoking is unhealthy.

The nature of marijuana and how the medical industry should or should not evaluate it is hotly debated.

Marijuana is illegal on the federal level and labeled a Schedule I substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Per this classification, it is highly prone to abuse and has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. This classification is not without controversy. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has noted that some synthetic cannabinoids have been approved or are currently being debated for medical purposes. Marijuana is also legal for both medicinal and recreational use in many states.

Regardless of any genuinely helpful roles it may play, marijuana addiction is real and can be genuinely damaging to one’s quality of life. Even when ignoring that it is illegal, (often carrying stiff penalties if caught), if someone is taking marijuana, it can be a detriment. They should seek help and attempt to stop taking it as soon as possible.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances people with depression take to relieve emotional pain. It is a lousy choice to relieve depression because it is a depressant. It may temporarily elevate mood, but alcohol generally slows the body and mind down.

As a depressant, it explicitly fails to relieve the symptoms of depression and can worsen them. Alcohol is fairly addictive and easily abused, especially because it is legally available to most adults.

These drugs are commonly abused, specifically prescription painkillers. While there are legitimate uses for prescription painkillers, they can cause a sense of euphoria and numbness that can push people to abuse them.

Opioids are especially dangerous if abused. They can cause dependence even if taken properly. If abused, this dependence forms more quickly.

This is one of the most destructive drugs out there, and unfortunately, it is not uncommon for depressed people to be drawn to it. The DEA reports the number of heroin users is growing fast.

Heroin is an extremely addictive opioid that causes euphoria and depresses breathing. Its use will rapidly worsen symptoms of depression and quickly lead to an often deadly spiral of abuse.

Seeking Treatment for Both Disorders

If someone is depressed and addicted to drugs, it is important they seek treatment for both conditions. The conditions feed into each other. While this can be incredibly demoralizing, it also means that working to weaken the pull of one can also weaken the pull of the other. 

seeking help

Treatment for co-occurring disorders means that both issues are addressed simultaneously. If only one disorder is treated, it’s highly likely that the symptoms of the untreated disorder will trigger a relapse of the treated condition.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for either depression or addiction. It’s often a trial-and-error process of finding the right mix of therapy, antidepressants, and lifestyle changes. The right combination of care can lead people to more fulfilling lives and out of their depression.

Even if depression does not go away entirely, it can be dramatically improved with the right steps and help. As with addiction, there is no cure for depression. Both conditions must be managed on an ongoing basis to prevent relapse.

It’s important to find a treatment program that is equipped to address both issues. Look for professionals who have experience treating these two co-occurring disorders.

Avoiding Self-Destruction

One of the biggest risks, when one is depressed, is to give up hope and willfully engage in self-destruction. You might believe there is no hope that you will ever be happier or less anxious than you currently are and therefore you should simply stop seeking help. These feelings may be amplified if you turn to drugs or self-harm to find any sort of relief.

Severe depression can be complex, but recovery is always possible. Neutral or at least less detrimental behaviors, such as watching television, can distract from self-destructive behaviors like self-harm or drugs. Positive behaviors — such as going to therapy, developing encouraging social relationships, or working at a fulfilling job — can make a big difference in managing depression on a day-to-day basis.

Never self-medicate if you have depression. If you believe drugs will help with a condition you are suffering from, ask a licensed professional about your feelings and be honest about any drugs you are taking. In nearly all cases in the U.S., a doctor will not report such drug abuse to authorities, and it is likely even illegal for them to do so. This is so patients can seek the help they need without fear.Engaging in self-destructive behaviors, even for a long time, does not mean you must continue.

Drug addiction requires professional help, and so does depression. Reaching out for that help means you can move toward a healthier, happier life in recovery on all fronts.


(February 2018). Depression. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved February 2019 from

(June 2018). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved February 2019 from

(October 2018). Marijuana and Cannabinoids. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Retrieved February 2019 from

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Diversion Control Division. Controlled Substances Schedules. Retrieved from

(2017). Drugs of Abuse (2017 Edition). Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Retrieved February 2019 from

(2015). National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Retrieved February 2019 from

Substance Use and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved February 2019 from

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