The Relationship Between Depression and Substance Abuse

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Depression  Substance abuse 

Depression is a mental illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts. This affects the way a person eats, sleeps, feels about himself or herself, and thinks about things. Depression is not just having a passing bad mood, it is not a sign of weakness, nor a condition that can simply go away on its own. People with depression usually cannot merely ‘pull themselves together’ and suddenly get better, but with  the appropriate treatments, most people with depression can get better.


Substance abuse can simply be defined as a pattern of harmful use of any substance for mood altering purposes. These different “Substances” can include alcohol and other drugs whether they are illegal or not. This substance “Abuse” can result because you are using a drug in a way that is not recommended/intended or because you are using a larger amount than what was prescribed. To make it clear, simply using the substance prescribed to you does not make you dependent or addicted, but relying on the drug mood altering effects (to make you feel “better” or for other reasons does make it substance abuse.  


Signs to look for in substance abuse and depression


  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A gloomy outlook on everything, thinking that nothing will get better and theres nothing you can do to change it.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. Not caring anymore about old hobbies, free time, social activities, or sex. You feel that you have lost ability to feel joy or pleasure.
  • Weight changes or appetite . Significant losses in weight, or gain in weight, (meaning a change of more than 5% of body weight within a month) 
  • Sleep problems. This could be insomnia, or waking up too early in the morning/oversleeping. \
  • Irritability or anger. Feeling annoyed, restless, or even physically violent. Your temper is short, your tolerance level is short and everything gets on your nerves.
  • Loss of energy. Being physically drained/sluggish.
  • Self-hating. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You roughly criticize yourself for your mistakes and flaws 
  • Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, reckless driving, or dangerous activities.
  • Concentration problems. Having trouble focusing, making decisions, or even remembering things.

(This is only a portion of the possible signs, but there are many more involved.)


Substance abuse: 

  • You continue taking a drug after it’s no longer needed for a health concern.
  • You need more and more of a drug to get the same effects (tolerance increased), and you need to take more before you feel an effect.
  • You feel abnormal when a drug wears off. You may start to become shaky, depressed, even sick to your stomach, sweat, or have headaches. This may also affect your appetite and mood. 
  • You cannot stop yourself from using the substance even if you try/want to. You still use it even though it’s making bad things happen in your life, like trouble with friends, family, work, or the law.
  • You spend a lot of your time thinking about the drug, like how you will get more, plans to take it, how good/bad you feel, etc. 
  • You have a hard time setting limits for yourself, or if you do, you do not stick to them. 
  • You slowly lost interest in activities you liked participating in, or do not have feelings for something that used to make you feel happy. 
  • Starting to have trouble doing normal daily activities, like working, cleaning or cooking. 

(This is only a portion of the possible signs, but there are many more involved.)

How Does Depression Affect Addiction?

While many people who have depression, intend on using drugs and alcohol to help them feel happy, most of these substances are doing the exact opposite and actually making you worse. Drinking could make a person only momentarily happy, but as alcohol enters the brain, it slows down the activity and makes users feel lethargic and depressed. This is also true with many opioids, such as heroin, benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Even though it is not always clear whether addiction or depression came first, when the two mental illnesses begin to start working simultaneously, they will feed off each other and create a destructive cycle.As depression and addiction share an increasingly close relationship, it becomes more important to provide accessible treatment and education to those suffering from these mental illness. Without the basic background and necessities, addiction and depression can easily be a fatal combination.


Self-Medicating Depression With Drugs And Alcohol

Even though depression is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in America, only about ⅓ of people who suffer from depression seek medical professional help for their condition. According to Mental Health America, a lot of people with depression feel as though their condition is not severe enough to make a doctors visit worth it. Obviously, this is not the correct way of thinking about this mental illness, and often can lead to more severe depression. 

Given the symptoms related to depression, it is not much of a surprise that those suffering from it would turn to use drugs and alcohol to ‘self medicate’ or somewhat numb the side effects of this mental illness.

Furthering the correlation between the two,  a recent study conducted by the University of Manitoba in Canada, made note that self-medicating depression with substances (like drugs and alcohol) is an increasingly common behavior. In the study, as many as 25% of their subjects admittedly used drugs or alcohol to lessen the symptoms of their depression.

Using substances as a way to deal with depression is one of the biggest red flags of substance abuse and addiction. Although this might seem obvious to most people, individuals who are suffering from a mental disorder will not always see how dangerous and misguided this decision really is. Another study that was published Psychological Medicine, found that the rising rates of depression are in fact connected to the increase in drug use, drug overdose, and suicide.

The longer the person uses substances to self medicate, the more dependent their body and brain becomes to using these drugs. This means over multiple uses, or periods of this self medication, can very easily spiral into an addiction.

Risk factors 


This is an infographic I had created in a previous unit about suicide and substance use. I feel as though this is a good representation of the statistics and risks involved with using drugs. This also relates to depression, since the main topic is suicide risk and substance abuse. (citations for infographic)


Depression is not something we can necessarily avoid or prevent, but substance abuse is. I have created a list of things that I plan to propose to my school to do. The best we can do to help prevent future drug use, is by teaching people the risks and allowing them to understand the serious nature of drug use. I think its important to do this while kids are young, and still developing so they grow up knowing not to use drugs. I found the outline for this plan while researching drug prevention. 

The Community Plan

  • Create a safe space for kids to talk/learn about potential drug risks
  • Builds on existing programs (e.g., drug abuse prevention programs, clubs, etc)
  • Provide more anti-drug presentations for the student body  
  • Incorporate life-skills training into drug education curricula
  • Keep parents informed, and help parents talk to their children on the subject of substance abuse

Why do we need drug education?

Drug education is important because young people are faced with many influences to use both illegal and legal drugs. By providing Education, it can play a counterbalancing role in shaping a overall culture of safety, moderation, and informed decision making. Drug education enables children, youth and adults to create the skills, knowledge, and feelings to appreciate the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle. Knowing more about substance abuse, students can promote responsibility towards the use of drugs and relate these to their own decisions  and those of others, both now and in the future.

Questions to reflect upon:

  • Have you ever been provided with drug education? If you have not, do you think that not having that knowledge effected your community?
  • Did you experience more/less drug use within the community? (Depending on your answer from above)
  • Should drug education be a requirement in every schools curriculum?




  1. I feel that drug education should definitely be a requirement in all schools no matter where you are it is important to be knowledgeable about these issues.

  2. Hi Isabella!

    I think this is a really great topic! I think your presentation is thoughtful and informative. I never had a drug education in my school, though our school did discussed about the negative impact of substance abuse a few times. I think drug education should definitely be included in every schools curriculum since it’s important to let people know about the dangerous effect of substances abuse, therefore prevent from using drugs.

  3. Hi Isabelle! I particularly liked your infographic as it was well organized and presented a lot of great information. In response to your first question, yes I have received drug/alcohol education. It was a few years ago though and from what I can remember was surrounded mostly on scare tactics such as disturbing images rather than actual facts about drug use. I believe it was either freshmen year or eighth grade so there was absolutely no use of these substances. I believe drug/alcohol education should be a requirement in the school system but the manner that the information is presented in should be throughly considered!

  4. Hi Isa! I really liked your project and thought it was very organized. Your infographics are so detailed and your project was easy to follow. I don’t understand how you completed this much work in such a short amount of time. Your project is definitely better than mine. Well done!!!!

  5. Hi Isabelle!
    I think that it is really great that you brought some light onto this topic as it also has a lot of stigma surrounding it. A lot of people associate drug abuse with rebellious, “bad” people when in reality they tend to just be individuals who are struggling internally and cannot find another outlet to cope other than the overuse of a drug that temporarily changes their mood.

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