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Depressed Teens and Addiction: What Every Parent Should Know

Young man with pills and white powder in front of him on a glass table.

A word frequently used in the medical community is “comorbidity.” That’s the state of one medical condition existing simultaneously with another. Though comorbid conditions may be related to each other, they usually occur independently. For example, “nausea” and “vomiting” are usually not considered comorbid since they almost always stem from the same cause (like food poisoning, for instance).

Comorbidity is common in substance abuse treatment circles, especially when it comes to teen depression and addiction. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reveals that about 1.4 percent of all kids between 12 and 17 years old used illicit drugs and experienced a “major depressive episode” within the previous 12 months.

Depression Facilitates Addiction—and Vice-Versa

The link between depression and addiction among adolescents is easy to discern. If teenagers feel despondent, they may turn to alcohol or drugs as an escape from their despair. And if the source of their unhappiness isn’t addressed, they may continue to cope with their feelings in this manner until (and after) they become addicted.

On the other hand, teens who engage in recreational consumption of drugs and alcohol may be unable to handle the “low” that often follows the “high” they receive from these substances. When you factor in the disruption of their sleep patterns often caused by drugs or booze which exacerbates their depressed state, they will be tempted to repeatedly abuse these substances so they can avoid their misery.

Scientists: Depression Correlates with Addiction

Research published in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence appears to strengthen the correlation between depression and substance abuse. Scientists from the University of Southern California surveyed over 470 ninth graders and found that the more depressed they were, the higher the likelihood that they had experimented with alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, painkillers, and other substances.

The study also examined what is known as “negative urgency,” or the tendency to act recklessly when experiencing extreme emotions. The USC scientists found that negative urgency accounted for the strong link between depression and the age at which they first tried alcohol. These results suggest that addressing the negative urgency disposition might help prevent depressed kids from getting addicted to alcohol.

How to Spot Depression in Teenagers

Young woman sitting on the ground with her head down.

Therefore, not only should parents be concerned about the overall well-being of their depressed adolescent children, but they should also be wary of the increased possibility of substance abuse by their teens. Some of the common signs of teen depression are:

  • Irritability or hostility
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Sadness or unexplained crying
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and/or favorite activities
  • Use of alcohol or illicit drugs
  • Sudden changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Sudden deterioration in school performance or behavior
  • Absence of energy or enthusiasm
  • Unexplained aches, pains, or fatigue 
  • Acting recklessly or violently
  • Running away from home
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

If your teenager is depressed and consuming drugs or alcohol, it’s essential that you arrange treatment for his or her comorbid depression as well as for substance abuse. Because if you don’t address the former, it will be much harder to eliminate the latter.

For help with teen substance abuse and depression, contact us.

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