Here’s the deal. If you have depression in your biological family, you should be aware that the use of alcohol can activate major depression. On the other hand, if you have no depression heredity, abusing alcohol can still lead to an episode of depression. You might wonder why this is news, but it has never been clear which comes first, the alcohol or the depression. Science has been puzzling for decades over whether the use or abuse of alcohol is an attempt at self-medicating for depression or whether depression may, at times, be caused by alcohol abuse. It appears that the answer is a bit confusing, but read carefully. Unlike the answer to the chicken and egg question, a new study published on March 7 appears to show that depression genes exposed to alcohol can flip the switch to major depression.
Still, alcohol abuse can produce a period of depression even without the genetic heredity. The latter may be less surprising to many since we know that alcohol is a depressant. Note that the article suggests that a period of depression differs from major depression.
If we were to apply the current Diagnostician’s Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), major depression would not be diagnosed if the depression is caused by substance use or abuse, including medication. It also shouldn’t be diagnosed if another condition is causing the depression. Since we can’t know, at least at this point in time, what caused a particular person’s depression, the authors are likely saying that major depression is depression of greater intensity and duration than a period of depression. A diagnosis of major depression relies on the following factors: the individual has suffered a majority of the symptoms for at least two weeks; this is a change from the person’s normal state; and a majority of the symptoms are present, including persistent depressed mood, eating issues, fatigue, sleep issues, feelings of guilt or worthlessness and/or others. The article concludes that further research is needed to know whether stressors related to alcohol problems, such as marital issues, might be a contributing factor to major depression.
The bottom line? Be wary of drinking alcohol if you have a family history of major depression and if you don’t have that family history, don’t abuse alcohol or you could have depressive episodes.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
JAMA and Archives Journals (2009, March 7). Alcohol Abuse May Lead To Depression Risk, Rather Than Vice Versa. ScienceDaily: Internet source at
© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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