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Drinking and depression: chicken or egg?

Published 07/02/2008

When life get us down, a common response is to reach for a glass of something that will cheer us up and banish gloomy thoughts.

Such is the role that alcohol plays in modern society. It's a ‘sharpener', a ‘livener', a drop of ‘dutch courage' that we turn to in times of stress or anxiety. Few of us consider that this behaviour could lead us to an alcohol clinic.

But relying on the mood-altering effects of alcohol can quickly become a vicious circle, says Sue Allchurch, director of Linwood Manor Group.

Alcohol is, in itself, a depressant, she points out. "We feel a bit low, so we have a drink. That drink makes us more depressed, so we drink again - and we have a bit more this time."

Over time, she warns, people who regularly drink alcohol in order to ‘self medicate' depressive symptoms find themselves trapped in a spiral of worsening alcohol abuse and more serious depressions, because tolerance builds up and more alcohol is needed to get that ‘lift'.

It's a widespread problem. In 2006, a survey of British adults conducted by the Mental Health Foundation found that one in ten respondents said they regularly drank alcohol in response to emotional upsets.

But by turning to an alcohol-based ‘pick me up' at such times, drinkers only leave themselves exposed to more serious mental health problems, said MHF chief executive Dr Andrew McCulloch, reporting on the survey's findings. "Using alcohol to deal with anxiety and depression doesn't work as alcohol can weaken the neurotransmitters that the brain needs to reduce anxiety and depressive thoughts," he explained.

And research conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) has shown that up to 40 per cent of people who drink heavily have symptoms that resemble a depressive illness. However, when these same people are not drinking heavily, only 5 per cent of men and 10 per cent of woman have symptoms meeting the diagnostic criteria for depression ? not that different from the rates of depression in the general population.

For these reasons, the first problem to tackle in cases of heavy drinkers that complain of depression is their alcohol abuse, says Sue Allchurch. "In such cases, a course of anti-depressants simply isn't going to help," she says. "Stopping drinking with the help and support of an approved alcohol treatment programe should be the first priority on the path to tackling that depression, because once a patient has stopped abusing alcohol, their depression may begin to lift quite naturally."

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