Treating Alcoholism and Depression

Alcoholism and depression are two of the most common diagnoses in the United States. These conditions also often occur together. In fact, people who experience depression or other mood or anxiety disorders are twice as likely to also suffer from a substance use disorder.1

If your loved one is struggling with alcoholism and depression at the same time, you are not alone. Millions of other Americans are living with the same problem – and millions of American successfully seek treatment every day. It is possible to treat both conditions in one location through specialized treatment in co-occurring disorders.

What Is Alcoholism?

Woman with liquor glassAlcoholism, known clinically as Alcohol Use Disorder, is a disease characterized by an impaired ability to control one’s drinking. A distorted view of self, including a denial of your drinking issues, and a preoccupation with getting and staying drunk are typical as well. The most important symptom would be a continued pattern of alcohol abuse despite the negative effects it has had on your life.

Family members and concerned friends can look for the following symptoms to identify alcoholism in a loved one:

  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when the person is without alcohol
  • Heightened agitation when unable to drink for any reason
  • Blackout periods while drinking where the person does not remember actions or behaviors that are often erratic, illegal or violent
  • Violent behavior while drinking
  • Calling in sick to work or missing school because of drinking
  • Ignoring basic needs like hygiene, proper nutrition, general household cleanliness, and health care
  • Lying about or becoming defensive when asked about alcohol intake
  • Need for more and more alcohol in order to feel the original effects2

“The only way I ever drank was in mass quantities in an effort to reach some sort of utopia I longed for,” writes Margaret P. of Heroes in Recovery. “I could never find it. No matter how much I drank, what drugs I did, or who I was with it was just never enough. I seemed to be having ‘fun’ on the outside, but on the inside I was extremely miserable. I knew in my gut that I couldn’t stop. I knew that my brain focused on drinking or using 24 hours a day. I knew that at the rate I was going I could not live to see another birthday.

“The alcohol and drugs took me to places I didn’t want to go, with people I didn’t need to be with, and to places no one should ever go,” she says. “But I had no choice. The drugs made the choices for me. Today I am free from the bondage of self and have choices.”

Causes of Alcoholism

Some Of The Risk Factors That Lead To Alcohol Abuse

Contrary to the beliefs of many, alcoholism is a medical condition and not simply a lack of willpower or self-control. Alcohol use disorder can stem from one or more different causes and is often the result of a combination of issues. Genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and psychological issues have all been identified in research materials as possible sources of an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol is legal for adults over the age of 21 in the U.S. and millions of people have a functional relationship with the substance, and are able to indulge in a drink or two without developing any long-term physical or mental health issues or a dependence upon drinking.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report the following as risk factors for the development of an alcohol use disorder:

  • Men who drink more than 15 alcoholic beverages in a week
  • Women who drink more than 12 alcoholic beverages in a week
  • Men who drink more than five alcoholic beverages and women who drink more than four alcoholic beverages in a single occasion at least once every week
  • Anyone with a parent that struggles with alcoholism
  • Young adults who struggle with environmental influences to drink alcohol
  • Patients who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder like depression
  • Those who have easy access to alcohol or live where it is acceptable culturally to overindulge in alcohol
  • High stress, relationship problems, low self-esteem, and other day-to-day struggles2

It is important to note that one drink is defined as a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or five ounces of wine. Often people don’t realize how much they are drinking. For example, a Long Island Iced Tea, a popular mixed cocktail, includes up to five shots of liquor — or five alcoholic beverages.2

The Difference Between Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholism (alcohol addiction) and alcohol abuse are both alcohol use disorders. Both conditions are dangerous. However, there are some slight differences between alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Not every person who misuses alcohol is considered an alcoholic. However, all alcoholics do abuse alcohol as part of their disease.

Alcohol abuse is the intentional overuse of alcohol for the purpose of getting intoxicated. A person who frequently abuses alcohol may not have a physical or extreme emotional dependency on alcohol that an alcoholic would have. A person who abuses alcohol by binge drinking may even go long periods without consuming alcohol but may do considerable damage during a binge. Many people who frequently abuse alcohol will begin to see negative effects at home, work, or school and will have troubles with friends, family, and even the law over their drinking. Alcohol abuse does lead to alcohol addiction over time.

Alcohol addiction involves alcohol abuse PLUS an increase in tolerance for alcohol, either an extreme emotional dependency or any level of physical dependency on alcohol. Addicted individuals need to consume alcohol in order to feel ok. They will crave it when they are not using it, and they may not be able to stop drinking without medical intervention to assist them with alcohol detoxification and recovery treatment.

Depression Signs and Symptoms

People who are experiencing depression may find it difficult to explain how they’re feeling to outsiders. Selecting the right words to paint the picture of depression is challenging. To make matters worse, many people often report that the disorder places a sort of film over their eyes, changing the entire way that they view the world and the people around them. This new view leads them to see things in a more negative light, and can cause them to feel like they are drowning with no way out.

People that are struggling with depression may look like everybody else. They hold down jobs and are present in relationships. They show up on time to work and laugh and are willing participants, but the whole time they may feel like they are living underwater. They may not answer the phone, read the paper, play sports or participate in any sort of pleasurable activity. Just getting through the day is exhausting.

As a consequence of these feelings, people with depression may:

  • Seem distracted or unable to concentrate
  • Sleep more or less than usual
  • Refuse to do the activities that once brought them pleasure
  • Gain or lose weight
  • Express feelings of hopelessness
  • Seem sluggish and slow

Types of Depression

While many people think of depression as just being extremely sad, but depression is more than that. It is a disorder that can come in many different forms. Some of the most common include the following:

  • Major Depression
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder
  • Psychotic Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Postpartum Depression
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) 

Studies suggest that people with depression spend an average of eight years trying to handle the problem on their own, struggling with their symptoms and coming up with their own methods to mitigate the damage. Sometimes those self-help methods lead directly to alcohol abuse and/or addiction. People turn to alcohol to numb the pain that they are feeling and help them forget the weight they feel sitting on their chest. This is not a healthy way of dealing with the feelings, and a person dealing with depression should look for more productive ways of dealing with their disorder.

Co-occurring Disorders and Dual Diagnosis Treatment

People who live with both alcoholism and depression often experience more intense symptoms than people who only experience one of these conditions. For example, the physical issues that alcohol use disorder causes may be amplified by depression. By the same token, the mental health symptoms caused by depression may increase the cravings for alcohol or make it more stressful to go without a drink.

For this reason, an alcohol rehab program that pays little or no attention to mental health treatment will not be an effective solution for those who suffer from both a depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder. The drinker whose drive to drink is powered by depression will be unable to remain sober without treating the underlying condition—depression. Simply removing the alcohol is not enough. Integrated care that provides equally treatment for both alcoholism and depression is necessary.

Unique and Personalized Treatment for
Co-Occurring Conditions

Because each person is different, individual treatment plans are often a necessary part of a full treatment program. Each person will exhibit different symptoms, have different experiences while dealing with both disorders, and have different goals for the future in terms of their personal definition of “wellness” and “balance.” Effective treatment should be characterized by:

  • Personal therapy. One-on-one care can make sure that the patient is involved in their own treatment plan, regular check-ins to evaluate progress are made, and proper attention is given to underlying or ongoing concerns like abuse, trauma, and other mental health issues.
  • Group therapy. The support of peers is invaluable in the treatment of both alcoholism and depression. Patients can benefit from a positive group experience that fosters healthy friendships with people who are like-minded, often have similar experiences, and can provide support as well as empathy.
  • Medication (as needed). In some cases, pharmacological assistance may be warranted for the treatment of alcohol cravings, withdrawal symptoms, or depression. Inpatient care is most effective at providing the patient with effective evaluation and monitoring that can more quickly stabilize the symptoms of the patient through correct medication choices, combinations, and doses.
  • Holistic healing. There is a number of different alternative and cutting-edge treatments that can augment a patient’s ability to rebuild their sense of self-worth, explore feelings and experiences that are difficult to articulate, and move toward physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. Yoga, meditation, gentle exercise, and alternative therapies like animal-assisted therapy, psychodrama, and cinema therapy are just a few options.
  • Aftercare services. A long-term stay in a rehabilitation center is a strong first step toward a new life in recovery but studies show that without aftercare support, it can still be difficult for patients to maintain their practice of their new way of life. Sober living and other options may be appropriate, depending upon the patient’s level of readiness at the end of their stay in treatment.

Start Your Depression and Alcoholism Recovery

Find out more about our unique, evidence-based style of treatment here at Michael’s House when you contact us at 760-548-4032. Our admissions coordinators are standing by to help you or your loved one helping your loved one take the first step toward recovery.


1 NIDA. Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 1 Sept 2010.

2 Martin, L. Alcohol Use Disorder. Medline Plus. 31 Jan 2016.