The Alcohol and Depression Question

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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mike D

    March 11th, 2009 at 5:05 AM

    So do you think this is true with other addictions such as gambling? My father went through a major bout of depression when hen became addicted to gambling so I have always wondered whether the depression caused the gambling or all of the gambling debts and secrecy caused the depression. I would love to hear some input from others aboutt his because we have always received conflicting viewpoints on this. Of course Gamblers Anonymous says that he is at heart a gambler and this caused the other symptoms to emerge while therapists tell me that gambling was just a way to deal with the depression he was feeling.

  • Leah

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:47 AM

    Thanks for the great read… I honestly believe that alcohol plays a big role in depression… especially when one comes off the “high” then they have to face whatever problems they have once the “high” is gone.

  • Maggie

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:49 AM

    It make me wonder if alcohol causes depression or if people drink because they are depressed… I think we need more studies to determine… I’m no therapist, but i’m sure it can go both ways.

  • Catherine

    March 12th, 2009 at 2:58 AM

    Never personally known anyone with this type of situation but my inclination would be that you are depressed first and then comes the other addictions to act as masks for the real underlying issues. Just a thought.

  • Denise

    March 13th, 2009 at 12:35 AM

    This is news to me. My husband has always been the pessimistic sort he’s drinking for nearly a year now. His losing his job and the drinking have made him attempt suicide twice. I didnt know that it makes u more depressed but now I definitely do see the connection.

  • Carla

    March 13th, 2009 at 3:03 AM

    In my experience I think that being depressed can lead to a lot of different behaviors that one may have never seen coming before. It is as if you take on a completely different life trying to figure out what is going on inside and then when it does kind of hit you than there are times that you try to cover it up any way that you can. Often that leads to picking up even more disastrous behaviors such as alcohol and drugs, or maybe as previously mentioned gambling. A lot of times these behaviors are used to try to give you some kind of high that is very different from the low that you are feeling while you are so depressed. But as so many of us already know alcohol is a depressant and will often times make you feel even worse not better about the situations you are facing.

  • Austin

    March 15th, 2009 at 6:33 AM

    Drinking always makes me a little goofy but never depressed!

  • Lynnatia

    March 15th, 2009 at 1:19 PM

    Amen Austin,, we are some of the lucky ones.. I don’t get depressed when I drink, but if I drink too much, I do become emotional at times, but not all the time.

  • mallory

    March 16th, 2009 at 2:44 AM

    Lynnatia, do you think that that may be a sign of depression coming on when you get emotional? It may only be temporary at the time, but it looks like it could become more if not watched carefully.

  • Robin

    March 16th, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    Do you think that the tendency to be depressed is as genetic as alcoholism is said to be?

  • Sage

    March 18th, 2009 at 3:12 AM

    @Robin: I think it is, yes.

    In my family there is a major history of drug and alcohol addiction, with multiple relatives having been afflicted. I think depression was also a serious problem for many of them, even though most were never diagnosed with a clinical mood disorder (with the exception of one great-aunt, who did have a diagnosis of bipolar illness).

    From what I have read, drug and alcohol addiction is closely tied to mental illness of all kinds, not just depression. Most forms of mental illness have an inherited component, although in some disorders the genetic connection is not easy to pin down.

  • Nichole

    March 18th, 2009 at 1:34 AM

    That’s a tough question, Robin. I’m almost betting that depression can be genetic. There’s something inside of us that gives us these emotions and if we inherit these emotions from our parents, then I’m guessing it can be genetic. That’s just a guess tho

  • Vickie

    March 19th, 2009 at 3:25 AM

    My brother, who passed away a year ago, was mentally handicapped and I can honestly say that mental illness, depression is genetic considering that my uncle was the same way and my sisters little boy has downs syndrome.

  • Bryan

    July 1st, 2009 at 10:34 AM

    I have been through addiction and I found that the drugs and alcohol caused the depression. I would use drugs and alcohol to deal with the depression. Its that first moment you have to recognize before you are addicted to realize what caused the first use of the substance. I now recognize what is causes the issues and I fix them before I become overwhelmed with depression.

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