Addiction & Depression: What’s the Connection?

Many who are addicted to alcohol or drugs are depressed. Likewise, many who are depressed use drugs or alcohol. Depression and addiction are difficult enough on their own. If you suffer from both, it can be hard to separate the two. Struggling with both mental illness and a substance use disorder is called a dual diagnosis or having co-occurring disorders. According to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 7.9 million people experience a mental health and substance abuse disorder at the same time. It can be difficult to know which issue came first and how one influences the other, even for the person suffering. A relationship between the two makes it difficult to get better or receive help. Continue reading to learn more about the complex relationship between depression and addiction, as well as how to fight them.

Does Depression Cause Addiction or Vice Versa?

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is quite common. According to the CDC, one out of every six adults in the U.S. will meet criteria for clinical depression at some point in their life. Sadness becomes clinical depression when it’s severe enough to impact your daily life. This means meeting a set of criteria laid out by the DSM-5. Depressive symptoms include:

  • Loss of energy or enjoyment in things you once enjoyed doing
  • Sleep problems
  • Aches and pains with no clear physical cause
  • Trouble concentrating

You may have a substance use disorder if alcohol and/or drugs interfere with your health or career. The DSM-5 also lays out criteria for recognizing when your substance use has become a disorder. These include symptoms like not being able to cut down when you want to or using even when it puts you in danger. Depression is common among those who abuse substances. About one-third of adults with a substance use disorder also suffer from depression. If you suffer from major depression and alcohol or drug addiction, the two disorders feed off one another. You may use drugs or alcohol to numb your emotions or struggles with mental health issues. On the other hand, if you abuse drugs, you may become depressed from substance use complications. These complications may include strained relationships with loved ones, losing your job, or facing legal charges and consequences like fees or jail time. Feelings of depression can also result from the use of central nervous system depressants like alcohol and Xanax. Coming down, or “crashing,” after a high can lead to these feelings. Coming down itself isn’t true depression, but if you regularly feel hopeless and unable to feel happiness while sober, you may meet criteria for clinical depression. In short, one disorder can cause the other, feeding into a constant cycle.

What Makes Dual Diagnosis Hard to Treat?

It can be difficult, even for professionals, to tell the symptoms of depression and addiction apart. A few overlapping symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble concentrating

Unfortunately, some people find that when they become sober, their depression worsens. This is because they’ve been numbing their painful feelings, traumatic memories, and negative thoughts for a long time. Without drugs or alcohol to bury these feelings, it all rises to the surface at once. But drugs and alcohol will never truly help you cope in the long run. Addiction makes depressive disorders worse, and vice versa. To recover, both conditions must be treated at the same time. Otherwise, depression may become severe enough to trigger relapse, suicidal thoughts, or other crises.

How to Treat Addiction & Depression

Fortunately, there are very effective methods of treating dual diagnosis. Here are the most successful:


Forms of talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very effective for mental health disorders like depression. This involves structured sessions with licensed therapists or counselors. You’ll learn coping skills to help control your negative and intrusive thoughts linked to major depression. A therapist can also help you process and heal from any trauma you may have experienced. Therapy for co-occurring disorders is a great option when joining a treatment center. If your depression is the driving force for your addiction, your temptation to use may decrease as you progress through therapy. Your therapist will also help you identify triggers and develop healthy coping mechanisms.


Antidepressant medications can also decrease the symptoms of depression. These work for depression as well as other mental health disorders like anxiety. The most common types of medications for mental health disorders are:

  • Tricyclics
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

There are also medications available for treating substance use disorders. They include naltrexone and buprenorphine. As with therapy, dependency on drugs and alcohol should decrease with your depressive symptoms.

Self-Help and Peer Support Groups

Self-help and peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous®, Narcotics Anonymous®, and SMART Recovery® allow you to meet like-minded people. Self-expression and empathy are healing for the mind. These groups don’t always address mental health topics, so be sure to find one with a mental health component, or supplement meetings with one-on-one therapy. The best way to treat addiction and depression is by combining methods into a structured addiction treatment program. Doctors may suggest starting with medical detox to rid your body of all substances. Medical supervision is necessary during your detox to avoid relapse. It can also keep you safe if your depressive and medical symptoms surface. Our intensive outpatient treatment program, inpatient rehab, and day treatment program combine therapy, medication, and peer support through 12-Step groups. These provide structure and support to allow you to learn about how your depression fed into your addiction, or vice versa. You’ll learn practical ways to break the cycle and finally live a happy, healthy life. If you’d like to learn more about our addiction treatment center and programs offered by Washburn House, or our capacity to treat co-occurring disorders, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to help you jumpstart your recovery from addiction and depression.

Scroll to Top