If I’m depressed and drinking now, where will I be in 5 years?

I want you to take a minute and think back to your early adulthood years. For some of you, this may be just a few short years ago. For others, this may be a few more years than that. Either way, think about your friend group during your early adulthood. Each friend in the group usually fills a certain role – the funny one, the shy one, the impulsive one… Can you think of the friend in the group who may have been depressed? Did they also drink heavily? There’s a good chance they might have. Statistics estimate that one third of individuals with a depressive disorder also meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder (Davis, Uezato, Newell, & Frazier, 2008). Now think about where that friend is at these days. How are they doing? Are they drinking less, or feeling less depressed? Are they feeling about the same?

Now that I’ve set the scene for this blog, I’m going to discuss some of the research I’ve worked on at the University of Manitoba. Frohlich, Rapinda, O’Connor, & Keough (2018) investigated co-patterns of depression and alcohol misuse in emerging adults after university graduation. This is to say, we looked at the patterns of what happens to people’s level of depression and drinking for 5 years after they graduate university.

We found 4 main patterns that people follow: some had low stable depression and low decreasing alcohol use; some had moderate and stable depression and alcohol misuse; some had high stable depression and low stable alcohol use; and some had high stable depression and alcohol use. The good news is that most individuals were in the “low risk” group that had low stable depression and low decreasing alcohol use. This suggests that the majority of people “mature out” of heavy drinking and only feel low levels of depression over time. However, there were still some individuals that continued to be at risk for higher levels of depression and drinking, even 5 years after university. These findings suggest that individuals who struggle with greater depression and alcohol use before graduating university may continue to struggle in the following years.

So what does all this mean? Depression often occurs alongside drinking problems. Theories, like the Self-Medication Theory (Khantzian, 1997), suggest that people drink to numb the feelings of painful emotions. So, in cases where people are feeling very depressed and down, they may drink more to try and alleviate these negative feelings, and this can become a repetitive and damaging cycle.

Another take home message is that not all individuals follow the same path when it comes to depression and drinking. Some get better, some stay the same. If we know that individuals who have higher levels of depression and drinking before graduating have a high likelihood of continuing on that way for years to come, they may need better access to earlier treatment (like better access to mental health and addictions resources while they are still in university). Perhaps this could prevent a long-term struggle with depression and drinking.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about the people in your life that may be struggling, how do you think you can help them? Check out some resources below:

White Wolf Inspired Living: whitewolfrecovery.com
The Lifeline Canada Foundation: thelifelinecanada.ca
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: camh.ca

References:

Davis, L., Uezato, A., Newell, J. M., & Frazier, E. (2008). Major depression and comorbid substance use disorders. Current opinion in psychiatry, 21(1), 14-18.

Frohlich, J. R., Rapinda, K. K., O’Connor, R. M., & Keough, M. T. (2018). Examining co-patterns of depression and alcohol misuse in emerging adults following university graduation. Addictive behaviors reports, 8, 40-45.

Khantzian, E. J. (1997). The self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders: A reconsideration and recent applications. Harvard review of psychiatry, 4(5), 231-244.