Side view of a despaired woman sitting curled up in nature.

Rates of depression have been increasing rapidly in the last few years, making it one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in America. Despite the rapid growth in the number of people diagnosed with depression, research from Cambridge University suggests that there are fewer treatment options than ever before. Instead, the study indicates that those struggling with depression are increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with their mental health.

What Is Depression?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders. According to the National Insititute of Mental Health, approximately 16 million Americans suffer from some type of depression.

Often characterized by extreme bouts of sadness, irritability, and hopelessness, depression can affect how a person feels and thinks, and how well they handle daily activities like sleeping, eating or working. While anyone can be diagnosed with this mental illness, depression is more common in women – particularly among middle-aged women 40 to 59-years-old.

Despite there being no known cause, researchers believe that depression is the product of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. Risk factors for depression include personal or family history of depression, significant life changes or trauma, and certain physical illness and medications.

Signs Of Depression

While there are a number of symptoms that could indicate depression, the disease can be hard to diagnose because many of the signs resemble everyday emotions. Due to this, those who believe they may have depression must be experiencing a combination of symptoms nearly every day for two weeks in order to be clinically diagnosed.

According to the National Insitute of Mental Health (NIMH), the following are common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad or unhappy moods
  • Feeling “empty”
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking slower
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Physical aches, including headaches and muscle soreness

Not everyone will experience the same combination of symptoms. The severity of these symptoms will depend on the type of depression, the individual’s overall health and how long they have been struggling with the disease.

Types of Depression

Depression presents itself differently in different people. The variety and severity of symptoms can differ significantly based on the type of depression a person is diagnosed with.

Some of the most common types of depression are:

  • Persistent depressive disorder: This condition is characterized by symptoms of depression lasting at least two years. A person with this disease may go through periods of major depression.
  • Major depressive disorder: Those suffering from a major depressive disorder with experience chronic feelings of sadness and indifference.
  • Postpartum depression: Women diagnosed with postpartum depression experience depression during or after birth. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, and tiredness make it difficult for mothers to provide daily care to themselves or their child.
  • Psychotic depression: Psychotic depression occurs when a person has been diagnosed with major depression and some form of psychosis. Their delusions or hallucinations usually covey a depression subject matter, such as illness, poverty or death.
  • Seasonal affective disorder: This disorder is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months. The depression usually lifts during the spring and summer. The condition is cyclical and occurs each year when there is less sunlight.

No matter the type of depression, these conditions can greatly affect a person’s quality of life if not treated properly. However, very few people suffering from depression actually seek the help they need. Instead of seeing real medical help, some choose to self-medicate.

Self-Medicating Depression With Drugs And Alcohol

Although depression is one of the most prevalent mental illness in America, only about one-third of the people suffering from depression seek professional help for their condition. According to the Mental Health America, many people with depression feel as though their illness isn’t severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. Unfortunately, this way of thinking can be dangerous.

Given the possible symptoms, it should come as no surprise that those suffering from depression will often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate or numb the side effects of this mental illness. A recent study by the University of Manitoba in Canada noted that self-medicating with substances is an increasingly common behavior among those with depression. As many as 25% of their subjects admittedly used drugs or alcohol to alleviate the symptoms of their depression.

Using substances as a means to cope with depression is one of the most distinctive signs of substance abuse or addiction. While this might seem obvious to those of sound mind, individuals suffering from a mental health disorder cannot always see how misguided and dangerous this way of thinking can be.

According to a study published in Psychological Medicine, the rising rates of depression are in line with increases in drug use, deaths due to a drug overdose, and suicide.

The longer the cycle of self-medication continues, the more dependent a person’s body and brain will become of substances to cope with their depression and everyday life. Over a period of months, self-medication can easily spiral into addiction.

How Does Depression Affect Addiction?

The comorbidity of depression and addiction is common, and often, the two conditions feed off of each other. Depression can make the symptoms of addiction drastically worse, and vice versa.

While many with depression use drugs and alcohol to help them feel happy, most of these substances are doing the exact opposite. Drinking may make a person momentarily happy, but as alcohol enters the brain, it slows down activity and makes users lethargic and depressed. This is also true of opioids, including heroin, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates.

As a person continues to feel more depressed, they’ll increasingly reach for drugs or alcohol to cope, causing both conditions to worsen simultaneously.

On the other hand, the isolation, guilt, and shame of addiction can easily cause a person to become depressed. The risk of depression is still prevalent even for those in addiction recovery. Research suggests that depression is one of the most common relapse triggers.

Although it’s not always clear whether depression or addiction came first, when the two mental illnesses begin working simultaneously, they will feed off each other and create a destructive cycle.

As depression and addiction share an increasingly close relationship, it’s becoming more important to provide accessible education and treatment options to those suffering from these mental illnesses. Without these basic necessities, addiction and depression could easily be a fatal combination.

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