Teen Depression Rates Are on the Rise. Will Substance Abuse Rates Follow?

Feb 3, 2017 | Blog, Co-occurring Disorders, Depression, Youth Addiction Treatment

A recent study found that today’s teens are experiencing much higher rates of depression than they were just a few years back. Does this mean that today’s young people are also at greater risk of developing addiction? The Edge examines this alarming new trend and its potential ramifications.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Teen Depression and Substance Abuse


  • Rates of teen depression are rising, but there has not been a correlating increase in treatment.
  • A new study shows that rates of teen depression are on the increase. Will teen addiction rates rise accordingly?

An alarming new study has revealed that teens between the ages of 12 and 17 are experiencing much higher rates of depression than they were just a few years ago. Unfortunately, the number of teens receiving treatment has not increased accordingly. This poses serious concerns both for the mental health of these young people, as well as for their increased risk of developing a co-occurring disorder such as alcohol or drug addiction.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

The term ‘co-occurring disorder’ is used to describe a relatively common phenomenon, in which a person who struggles with substance abuse also experiences mental health issues. The concept itself is nothing new in the realms of psychiatry and addiction treatment, but the way that we talk about co-occurring disorders has changed.

In the past, this was often referred to as ‘dual disorders’, though this term failed to recognise the fact that more than two disorders could co-exist at the same time. Furthermore, ‘dual disorders’ can also be used to refer to co-occurrence of two mental health disorders. ‘Co-occurring disorders’, on the other hand, is used specifically in the context of co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Certain combinations of disorders appear to go hand-in-hand. For example, cocaine abuse and major depression seem to have an affinity for one another. Likewise, alcohol addiction often pairs with panic disorders or – in fewer cases – schizophrenia.

Young Men are at High Risk for Addiction

Which Comes First: Addiction or Depression?

We should note that there is some debate over which of the co-occurring disorders comes first. There is no easy answer to this question, and it is probably safest to say that it goes both ways. In some cases, mental illness drives a person to substance use and ultimately addiction. In others, substance abuse creates disruptions in mental health, eventually leading to chronic problems.

When a mental disorder such as major depression comes first, substance use may be a form of self-medicating. For example, the dopamine boost caused by cocaine use may feel like an effective (if short-lived) remedy for depression. Any drug that can lighten a person’s mood, such as alcohol, could become attractive to someone suffering from depression.

But by the same token, drugs that initially lead to boosts in dopamine, serotonin and other mood-altering neurotransmitters also lead to eventual deficits of these chemicals in the brain. Prolonged substance abuse can disrupt the brain’s production of these neurotransmitters, leading to a form of chemically induced depression.

Regardless of which comes first, substance abuse and depression can exacerbate one another. Neither creates a solution for the other, and both lead to chronic problems with mental health and addiction.

Teenagers Are Subject to a Particularly High Risk of Depression

Everyone knows that teenage and even early young adult years are emotionally trying. And a recent survey conducted by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the US found that this is more true now than ever before.

The results of their survey were published late last year, and they found that the number of young people aged 12 to 17 who are exhibiting signs of depression are on the rise. In 2011, 8.2 per cent of respondents fit the bill. By 2014, that figure had surged to 11.4 per cent.

In just three years, the number of teens who appeared to be suffering from depression had grown by nearly 40 per cent. That is an alarming trend – and one that parents, educators and mental health professionals are wise to take note of.

It is important to note that teens who are developing major depression right now are at greater risk of developing co-occurring disorders in the future. It is important that these individuals receive the care and support they need now so that they are less likely to turn to alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with depression.

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Increases in Teen Depression Have Not Led to an Increase in Treatment

One of the most disturbing revelations of this study has to do with treatment. Even though the occurrence of major depression in teens has risen by 37 per cent over the past few years, there has not been a correlating increase in depression treatment. The fact that these teens are not receiving the care and support they need means they are at a much higher risk of turning to drugs and alcohol.

For those who work with teenagers, this is old news. Late last year, Time magazine ran a feature entitled ‘The Kids Are Not Alright’, which stated that approximately 3 million teens (in the US alone) had a depressive episode at least once in 2015. Two-thirds of these teens reported that the depression interfered with their ability to function on a daily basis.

But it gets worse. Experts believe this is only the tip of the iceberg and that the actual figures are even higher. Meanwhile, the Child Mind Institute claims that more than half of all teens with depression are not getting treatment. This, in turn, leads to higher rates of substance abuse and places affected teens at greater risk of suicide.

The Edge Offers Help for Depressed and Addicted Teens

Our treatment programme at The Edge is designed specifically to help men between the ages of 18 and 28. Many of the young men under our care suffer from co-occurring disorders, with depression often in the mix. If you or someone that you care about is struggling with substance abuse, depression or other mental health disorders, our licensed addiction treatment specialists and mental health practitioners can help. Contact us today and get help now.