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Treating Substance Use Also Reduces Depression in Youths with Both Problems

man smoking cannabis

Treating Substance Use Also Reduces Depression in Youths with Both Problems


Many people use substances like alcohol and cannabis to curb depression. In fact, people seeking relief from anxiety, depression, and pain have the highest risk of developing cannabis use disorder (CUD). This means that substance use and depression often occur side-by-side.

However, a new study shows that treating substance use alone also inadvertently reduces depression in adolescents and young adults who have both problems. It's like killing two birds with a stone. Notably, participants who experienced the greatest benefits were those who used cannabis less frequently even before treatment began.

The study was published by Elsevier in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).


The Effects of Depression Coexisting with Substance Use Disorder

Alcohol and cannabis use coexisting with depression is a significant problem among adolescents and young adults, lead author John Curry acknowledged. Typically, such youths tend to experience longer depression episodes and suicidal behavior in addition to the negative outcomes of substance use, such as academic problems and auto crashes. In all of that, these youths tend towards even heavier substance use to seek relief from the same problems the substance is causing.

The problems stare us in the face. But sadly, there is no one way of treating patients having substance use disorder alongside depression. They often have to be given two different treatments, one for substance use and the other for depression.

Interestingly, early studies have shown that some of these youths experienced an improvement in their depression when receiving treatment for only substance use. The studies suggest that if that treatment is maintained, they may not need to get the other treatment -- for depression.

Seeing this condition, researchers went on the test an adaptive approach in which all participants received substance use treatment. According to John Curry, they wanted to determine what percentage of youths will experience early positive depression response when receiving substance use treatment and what factors predict the outcome. In addition, the research would also help to examine two different approaches to treating depression: treating depression alone and treating substance use alone.


The Research

The researchers took a sample of 95 youths between the ages of 14 and 21. These youths were suffering from depression while using cannabis or alcohol.

After being offered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for 14 weeks focusing on their substance use, 35 of the participants (37%) experienced early improvements in depression. In this context, the term "early improvement" refers to a 50% reduction in depressive symptoms by the fourth week of therapy.

One notable finding was that participants who experienced early depression response were those who used cannabis less frequently and had no conduct disorder. But the severity of depression, demography, or other psychiatric conditions had no influence on the level of depression response.

Clearly, the predictor of early depression response when treating substance use is the low use of cannabis and absence of conduct disorder.

Therefore, people who currently use cannabis less often to seek relief from depression have a higher chance of quickly improving their depressive symptoms when undergoing substance use treatment.

Alcohol and cannabis use dropped in all participants over the entire course of the therapy. For those who didn't experience early depression response, their depression improved significantly later on with additional treatment after the 14 weeks elapsed.


The Bottom Line

The finding shows how the level of cannabis use may impact depression during treatment. Further research, however, is needed because the sample for this particular study was small.

But one thing's for sure: additional examination and analysis can help create a cost-effective treatment for patients battling both depression and substance abuse.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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