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Is Alcohol the Cause of College Depression?

young sad mad sitting by the window in regret
alcoholism

College depression is a very common condition. Affecting as many as 22% of students in the United States, college depression and alcohol use go hand in hand.1 Yet just how are this condition and alcohol use linked, and how can individuals start overcoming addiction? To find the answer, it’s important to understand what students transitioning to college are facing, and how prior depression can compound their challenges.

College Is a Significant Life Event

A student leaving home for college is facing transition on more than one level. Not only are they traveling away from their family and peers who support them, but their destination is one that’s completely unfamiliar. To add to this, the level of schooling they’re about to enter will demand far more from them academically than at any other time in their lives.

In addition, college is far less structured than high school; students are not monitored by their professors to ensure their attendance at lectures and tests. This provides students with a lot more freedom, but also with the challenge of balancing their academic responsibilities with their other responsibilities.

Life at Home vs. Life at School

The definition of normalcy where college is concerned is typically very different from home. For example, addictive substances like alcohol are likely to be far more readily available at college than they were at home. There are more opportunities to socialize, and more events are likely to be associated with alcohol and other drugs.

Effects of Different Stressors

The transition to college life means that a student is exposed to several stressors on several levels simultaneously. Any of these stressors can lead to alcohol abuse.

Emotional Stress

Not only are they facing the loneliness and emotional stress of leaving family and peer support behind, but there is also the emotional stress of dealing with the social situations that college life brings. A student who already feels socially awkward or insecure may experience even stronger feelings of insecurity at college. Any of these can result in a student’s use of alcohol to numb their feelings and appear more confident.

tired student girl studying in stress for exam overwhelmed

Mental Stress

The increased academic difficulty of college can cause severe mental stress in students. Anxiety, panic attacks, and major depression are all common conditions reported by college students. Mental stress can also arise out of living in a residential situation with multiple students or roommates. It’s very easy for mental stress to increase quickly in an environment where all are experiencing their own mental stress at the same time. Therefore, using alcohol to relieve this stress is very common.

Physical Stress

In order to meet their academic obligations as well as enjoy a full social life, many students opt to “burn the candle at both ends” by forgoing sleep in favor of parties and all-night studying. Robbing the body of sleep can take a significant toll on physical and mental health, resulting in the use of alcohol to minimize these negative effects.

Physical stress is also caused by dietary changes. Unlike home where diet is monitored by parents, a college student’s diet may consist largely of processed foods. The increase in fat, sodium, and sugars can negatively impact one’s physical health, both during college years and into adulthood if these eating habits continue.

Two Sides of a Causal Relationship

Is alcohol the cause of depression, or does depression cause alcohol abuse? Research has revealed that both can be true.

Alcohol as a Cause of College Depression

Alcohol is a drug that’s classified as a depressant. Depressants cause an increased feeling of relaxation and sleepiness by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters—specifically, the GABA and glutamate neurotransmitters. These changes in brain chemistry can be enough to cause depression even in those who may not have previously experienced the condition.

College Depression as a Cause of Alcohol Abuse

Students who are already struggling with depression may turn to binge drinking in college in order to self-medicate. While alcohol may initially seem to make one feel better, over time, the body’s tolerance to alcohol will increase. This will result in a higher amount of alcohol being needed to produce the same level of relief initially experienced, leading to abuse.

The Risks Are Equally High

A study published by the journal Addiction revealed that a person who is struggling with depression is twice as likely to develop an alcohol addiction, and that a person who is struggling with alcohol addiction is twice as likely to develop depression.2

Recognizing the Signs of College Depression

Whether a student is living at home or away in a residence, knowing these common signs of college depression will make them easier to identify and ultimately treat:

  • Expressed feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and emptiness
  • Self-blame of things out of their control, and feelings of worthlessness
  • Tearfulness, angry outbursts, irritability
  • Frustration over even seemingly insignificant matters
  • Problems with concentration, memory, decision-making, and thinking
  • Sudden onset of academic problems inconsistent with past performance
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Reduced or increased appetite and weight loss or gain
  • Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities
  • Fatigue and difficulty with even small tasks
  • Inexplicable physical pain and problems

What You Can Do

If you are the parent or friend of a loved one who is exhibiting the signs of college depression, it’s important to encourage conversation about it. Talk to them about what is happening in their life and listen to the thoughts and feelings they express. If you notice any of the signs described above, ask that they make an appointment with a doctor or mental health counselor at their college.

If you are the person who is experiencing college depression, it’s very important to monitor yourself for the signs above. Also, you need to be aware that taking any medication to treat existing depression can be dangerous if you mix them with alcohol, as they can cause alcohol to have a more intense effect than usual.

Some antidepressants, when mixed with alcohol, can cause your blood pressure to increase quickly and dramatically, resulting in a fatal stroke. The monoamine oxidase inhibitors, also known as MAOIs, are a potentially fatal class of antidepressants to mix with alcohol.

Additional Treatment Options

If you have or loved ones have tried counseling for their depression, alcohol abuse, or both with little success, there are additional treatment options that can help. Intensive outpatient therapy, or IOP, is a way to receive treatment that allows you to live at home instead of at a rehab center so that you can continue to meet your obligations.

This type of program involves treating the individual, but also involves the family in therapy sessions. Treatment includes group and individual counseling sessions, as well as education and learning coping skills to avoid relapse.

Problematic girl and addiction therapist

Holistic Treatment for Addiction

The challenges of college life can seem insurmountable, at best, and each individual will experience their own range of symptoms related to depression and alcohol abuse. In order to be successful, treatment must be individualized and provide valuable resources which allow you to maintain your sobriety for life.

RECO Intensive outpatient addiction treatment addresses the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of addiction. We are able to do this because of the network of professionals that are available. Once you’ve entered the program, you will have the skill and assistance of not only a case manager, but a behavioral health specialist, medical doctor, and a primary therapist. Working together, this team fully supports you in long-term addiction recovery.

Depression and alcohol abuse can negatively affect your performance at school, your relationships, and your life. When you are ready to explore life without addiction, RECO Intensive’s addiction recovery program is ready to help. Call (855) 799-1035.

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3654787/
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/50303291_Alcohol_and_depression