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Risk for Alcohol Dependence High in People With Mood Disorders

Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Mood disorder is the collective term used by mental health professionals to describe all diagnosable forms of depression and bipolar disorder. Apart from these recognized conditions, some people develop isolated or unusual symptoms of bipolar disorder or depression that don’t qualify for an official diagnosis. People affected by mood disorders or mood disorder-related symptoms often develop a physical dependence on the presence of alcohol in their brains and bodies.

In a study published in July 2013 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, a multinational research team examined the reasons for this situation. The researchers concluded that the connection between mood disorders and alcohol dependence stems largely from a tendency among people with disordered moods to attempt to self-medicate those moods through inappropriate alcohol use.

Mood Disorder Basics

While almost any mental health issue can alter an affected individual’s mood, mood disorders get their name because of their primary effects on a person’s day-to-day psychological/emotional outlook. However, the American Psychiatric Association (which sets the basic terms for diagnosing mental disorders in the U.S.) does not designate a specific category of illness with the mood disorder heading. Instead, doctors informally use the term (or a second term, affective disorder) to describe both depressive disorders and bipolar disorders. Specific depressive mood disorders include major depression, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and persistent depressive disorder. Specific bipolar mood disorders include cyclothymic disorder, bipolar I disorder and bipolar II disorder. Popular notions of depression and bipolar disorder typically correspond to the symptoms that define major depression and bipolar I disorder.

Alcohol Dependence Basics

Alcohol dependence is a more formal term used to describe alcoholism. People affected by this dependence have undergone certain changes in their brains’ chemical environments that cause them to rely on the continued presence of alcohol to feel a sense of “normalcy.” Generally speaking, the chemical changes in question occur in people who regularly consume excessive amounts of alcohol for considerable amounts of time. However, some people may have susceptibilities that lead to the onset of alcoholism in the aftermath of relatively low levels of alcohol consumption and/or after relatively brief periods of regular alcohol intake. In mental health terms, alcohol dependence is one subtype of a larger disorder called alcohol use disorder, which also includes non-addicted alcohol abuse.

Self-Medication Basics

Self-medication is the general term for any attempt to use non-doctor-approved methods to treat the symptoms of a known or suspected physical or mental health issue. As a rule, all such attempts are potentially dangerous because they take place outside of the context of a physician’s oversight and review. In addition to or apart from alcohol, self-medicating individuals may use a wide variety of drugs, including medications used without a proper prescription or in violation of a prescription’s guidelines. In a looser interpretation of the term, some people also self-medicate with activities such as gambling, shopping or unusual or excessive food intake.

Current Findings

In the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from several American and Canadian institutions used a nationwide survey—called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions—to examine the risks for alcohol dependence in self-medicating people diagnosed with mood disorders, as well as in self-medicating people with depression- or bipolar-related symptoms who don’t qualify for any official diagnosis. Initially, more than 43,000 U.S. adults participated in the survey; over 34,600 of these individuals also participated in a survey follow-up conducted anywhere from two to four years later.

After reviewing the assembled data, the researchers found that almost 12 percent of the people with diagnosable mood disorders or mood disorder symptoms who self-medicate with alcohol develop short-term forms of alcohol dependence. They also found that close to 31 percent of the self-medicating people with mood disorder diagnoses or mood disorder symptoms develop long-term forms of alcohol dependence that continue to negatively impact their health over time. The link between self-medication with alcohol and alcohol dependence remains strong even when a number of potentially interfering factors—such as severity of mood-related illness, gender, age and ethnic background—are taken into consideration. It also remains strong in people who have already received some sort of doctor-sanctioned treatment for their mood disorder symptoms.


Alcohol dependence is a major problem across the U.S. and in most (if not all) other countries. The authors of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry believe that advance knowledge of the connection between alcohol self-medication and alcohol dependence in people with mood disorders or mood-altering symptoms can help doctors devise new ways to prevent the onset of alcoholism and improve the quality of care for mood-related illness.