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Depression and Substance Abuse: Which Comes First for Teens?

July 17, 2017


Teens — even those that grow up in a place in safe, happy environment — lives' get messy. Hormones, growth, new social constructs, friends, peer pressure, experimentation and simply the ongoing need to live life daily all combine to make adolescence a time of newness and excitement as well as a time of fear, stress and emotions. It's not uncommon for teenagers to experience bouts of anxiety or depression, and it's also not uncommon for them to push boundaries or even experiment with substances.

That doesn't mean parents shouldn't worry about such things or that they shouldn't take action because these things are "normal."

Instead, parents should educate themselves about teen depression and substance abuse so they can understand how one might lead to the other and be better equipped to seek treatment for their child when it's necessary.

Some Numbers on Teen Depression and Substance Abuse

  • In 2010, a national survey noted that 49.5 percent of teens met criteria for a possible mental health disorder diagnosis; 14.3 percent met criteria for a mood disorder such as depression.
  • In 2008, 4,513 individuals aged 10 to 24 committed suicide.
  • The most recent Monitoring the Future survey notes that 61.2 percent of 12th graders reported trying alcohol; around 22 percent of 8th graders reported the same thing.
  • In 2016, approximately 48 percent of high school seniors reported using illicit drugs at some point in their lifetime, and 38 percent had done them in the last year.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that teens who go through an episode of major depression are two-times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than other youth.

How are Depression and Substance Abuse Linked

You can see from the statistics above, both depression and substance abuse are very real problems for teenagers today, and they are sometimes related problems. Depression can lead a teen to use drugs or alcohol; at the same time, an adolescent with no history of depression can develop mental health issues because of substance abuse.

Which comes first, Depression or Substance Abuse?

From Depression to Substance Abuse

The road into substance abuse is unique for everyone, which is one reason it's so important to customize treatment plans for each teen in recovery. For some teens, drug use begins with a desire to feel better. Every teen — and every person, for that matter — goes through periods of sadness or depression. Life, after all, is not always perfect, and it's natural to become burned out or frustrated. These types of natural depressions are part of normal emotional cycles.

When a teen is caught in clinical depression, he or she doesn't cycle out of it in a normal fashion. It can also be more severe and darker than a normal downtrend in emotions; he or she might want to feel better, but they simply can't. They might also struggle with loss of energy, not caring about things, trouble sleeping or eating (or eating and sleeping too much). All of this can make them feel trapped and like nothing will ever work for them.

Whether a teen trapped in depression starts taking drugs just to feel better — or feel anything — or because they are trying to escape temporarily from their situations, the result can be a continued substance abuse disorder. Not only does depression make it more likely that a teen might try drugs and alcohol, it also makes it even harder for them to stop using.

From Drugs and Alcohol to Depression

It's not a one-way street, though, and drug and alcohol use can contribute to depression in teens. First, if a teen is already struggling with depression and is also dealing with guilt about substance abuse, she or he is likely to fall deeper into depression. Even a teen who hasn't been dealing with depression could find that guilt and the other worries and concerns that come with substance abuse can lead in that direction.

Drugs and alcohol are chemicals. They react with various aspects of the body in different ways, often changing the way the brain operates. Brain chemistry is one of the things that controls emotional and mental functioning, and an imbalance in that chemistry can cause depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. For some teens, the road from drugs and alcohol to depression is simply a matter of physical imbalance.

For other teens, drugs and depression don't lead to each other, but are instead the end result of the path and situation the teen is surrounded by. For example, studies indicate that children and teens in foster care are more likely to face both substance abuse and mental health issues.

What Can Parents Do?

If you suspect that your teen is struggling with either depression or substance abuse, don't hesitate to reach out for help. The problem may only get worse without professional intervention, and in many cases, one problem can lead to the other. If you are interested in speaking to an addiciton counselor call us today (844) 319-5239

Related Articles:
Talking to Your Teen Before They've Used Drugs
Warning Signs of Drug Abuse
What Parents Can Learn From The Icelandic Model

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