Depression and Substance Abuse

Depression and Substance Abuse

Holiday season is pushing into full swing and for some individuals, this means that the levels of stress are rising. The demands of holiday activities – shopping, parties, family gatherings, work festivities – put a strain on people, increasing stress levels. Even for those who are not involved in a long list of activities, the unrealistic expectations that the holiday season encourages can be just as stressful. This is commonly presented as ‘the holiday blues.’ For individuals already suffering from depression and substance abuse, the additional stress of meeting social expectations can exacerbate feeling of worthlessness and despair.

True or False?

Do the holidays then contribute to an increase of depression and substance abuse? Are the stressors of the holiday season responsible for higher rates of suicide? Media reporting tends to draw a correlation between suicides and holidays. One study, in particular, showed that two out of three newspaper stories about suicide or depression from Depression and Substance Abusemid-November 1999 to mid-January 2000 made a connection between suicide and the holidays. It’s commonly stated that holidays, due to the increased number of stressors, can lead to a higher number of suicide attempts as well as higher rates of substance abuse. As recently as 2004, ABC News published a piece stating openly that the holiday season is marked by an increase in depression and substance abuse. Is this, in fact, true? Research actually points in the opposite direction. Studies from as far back as the 1980’s have shown a decrease in psychiatric visits prior to Christmas and rising only afterward. Examination of national suicide data shows that November and December are the lowest ranked months for daily suicides, with January running a close third.

Substance abuse is often an attempt at self-medication for mental illnesses such as depression. Chronic stress is a well-known substance abuse risk factor, and increased stressors can push an individual to seek greater levels of ‘relief’ through substances and alcohol. With that said, however, the decrease in suicide rates and emergency psychiatric visits during the holiday season is clearly documented. Numerous studies have examined data gathered and determined that the perceived idea of holidays increasing depression is largely false. Stressors do increase during the holiday season, but contact with friends and family also tends to increase. This provides more emotional support than a person may receive throughout the year. Focus on external activities and other individuals can help redirect an individual’s energies. The holidays present a greater emphasis on showing love and support to family members and friends.

Pre-Existing Conditions Contributing To Depression and Substance Abuse

There are specific individuals who don’t fall under the general range of statistics. Already dealing with issues regarding depression and substance abuse, these people will be affected by the increased stressors in the holiday season. It is not the stressors themselves which are to blame for the depression or the substance abuse. The issue is pre-existing and exacerbated by the stressors. Prolonged substance abuse, for example, literally reroutes the brain’s pathways. Neurobiological studies of substance abuse illustrate how the physical brain’s channels to the ‘reward center’ change over time. Cravings for the chemicals released during substance abuse turn into hardwired highways that cause changes in behavior. This is not something that can be created by the holiday season, but the additional stressors may cause the individual to seek further substance ‘relief’ due to the rewired state of their brain. Depression itself can literally damage the human brain. The hippocampus, a part of the limbic system responsible for memory and emotions, reduces in size during depression, and that reduction in size can be permanent. This is not an immediate physical reaction to depression, nor can it be caused by the temporary stressors of the holiday season. In both instances- substance abuse and depression- the states of being are pre-existing. Their symptoms and how they affect human behavior, however, can be altered or aggravated by an increase in stress, such as the holiday season.

What’s The Connection?

A pre-existing condition and a season with an increase in external stressors can turn into a dangerous situation. The holidays themselves are not responsible for depression and substance abuse, nor do they cause an increase in suicide.Depression and Substance Abuse Where the danger lies is in the preconceived notion that holidays are ‘stressful.’ This is an excuse that an individual suffering from depression or substance abuse can put forth to explain their behavior. When an individual can refer to the holiday season as the reason for their alcohol abuse or abrupt changes in behavior, others who are in a position to note the danger signs may be led to believe there is nothing to worry about. If a person is in severe danger and would benefit from the supportive care of inpatient treatment for depression and substance abuse, such excuses can actually halt them from receiving a necessary medical intervention. Education is beneficial. Being aware of the nature of substance abuse and depression can aid people in observation. Knowing that the holiday season itself does not cause substance abuse and depression can alert individuals to catch the warning signs that might otherwise be explained as ‘the holiday blues.’

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