Depression and low mood

Alcohol, recreational drugs and depression

Alcohol and recreational drugs are ‘mood-altering substances’, in other words they have an effect on the mood and state of mind of anyone using them (in addition to other effects on the central nervous system). Their effect can be particularly heightened for people who have depression or experience low moods, and depression and anxiety can be made worse by consuming large quantities of alcohol.

In some instances, drinking alcohol may counteract the benefits of antidepressant medication or it can be unsafe to take the two together. Alcohol can also make people more likely to act impulsively, and there is a known link between alcohol use and suicide. Here young people talk about their experiences of alcohol and depression and also talk about recreational drug use.

Drinking alcohol
Young people we spoke with talked about their views and experiences of drinking alcohol and its effects on their moods and depression. Most of them said they did drink alcohol although a few said they only drank very little and very rarely. Some didn’t like the taste of alcohol, couldn’t afford to buy it or just generally weren’t keen on drinking and the drinking culture. One man who was training to be a doctor said he wouldn’t drink alcohol because he knows “how much damage it can do”. Another woman had stopped drinking because alcohol could trigger and enhance her anxiety attacks.

Many people felt that drinking alcohol was an important part of their lifestyle and went hand in hand with school, college or university culture. Some felt sometimes unspoken pressure to join their friends by drinking alcohol, or had thought it was ‘cool’ because their older friends were drinking. Mostly people said they drank alcohol because it was “a good laugh”, “fun” and a social thing to do in the park, pub or club with their mates.

Many hoped that drinking would lift their moods or help them “escape” feeling depressed. They described drinking to “cheer” themselves up, to “take mind off” worries and problems. One woman said she drank every night to help her sleep while another one described how she drank so she “didn’t have to think about how I felt”.

Effects of alcohol on mood and depression
Generally, people said they were fine as long as they stuck to what they felt was their “safe limit” or drank “moderately”. Drinking “too much” made depression much worse. They pointed out that initially a couple of drinks made them feel better but after a few more, they felt a lot worse. One woman described alcohol as “a natural downer” so she’d stopped drinking. Some said going out and drinking lifted their moods and they were fine “when drinking” but that they felt “million times worse” the next day.
A few people felt that hangovers heightened their feelings of depression and anxiety and a couple said they suffered from a moral hangover after a big night out. One woman described how drinking affected her moods;
 
“(I was) absolutely miserable and miserable about being miserable”.
Some people found it difficult to drink “moderately” as they said that after they “hit a point” it was hard to stop. Drinking “too much” made some feel “stupid” and “do silly things”. They would mix drink and drugs, pass out or get “in trouble”. For some there was also a link between drinking and aggression. Some people described how they got angry much more easily when drunk and ended up in fights or arguing with people. Many young people also said that when they were drunk they were more likely to self-harm and feel suicidal. See also our section on ‘Depression, self-harming and suicidal thoughts’.
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A few people talked about more severe experiences with alcohol. A couple of women had had their drinks spiked (having for example illicit drugs added to their drink without them knowing). One woman’s experience of a one-off drink spiking had left her partially paralysed, with uncontrolled epileptic seizures and speech problems. She had to stop working and studying and to be cared for fulltime by her family. The spiking made the depression worse and she started suffering from panic attacks. For her, drink spiking changed her life forever.
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Alcohol & addiction
Few people described themselves as an “alcoholic” or “addicted” to alcohol. They had started drinking often as a part of a social group in their teens, first at weekends, then gradually more and more often, and eventually daily. One woman said she was getting drunk on her own as she was “socially inept”. At most, some were drinking 2-3 bottles of wine every day or over 80 units per week. One man said he was “drinking to get drunk”.

They said their parents had no idea of the extent of their drinking or that they would’ve ignored their advice anyway. One woman said she’d turned from bulimia to alcoholism to try to “handle problems” and to control depression and her feelings; “bulimia and alcoholism, that’s same disease, different means”.
All of these people said that in the end, they’d “stopped caring” for and about themselves and caring about what would happen to them. One woman described herself as “detached” from everything. A couple had attempted suicide. People said that heavy drinking had caused their lives to be an “absolute chaos” and “out of control”. One woman described this as; “my life was just getting pissed and throwing up”. Another one said:
 
“Because I was either drunk, high or whatever, I just can’t remember it… I didn’t know what was happening, I can’t remember most of the time there [in school]”

One woman described the drinking in her friendship group;

“We didn’t know to have fun without it. It just ruins you.”
 
Another woman said:
 
“I was definitely getting worse, in that I just didn’t care anymore. Whereas before I’d always been like, oh no I’d never cut myself or something like that. Suddenly I was just like, why not? You’re already f***ing messed up; you might as well do something else.”
People had also suffered from physical symptoms such as shaking, recurrent infections, bad throats and sleeping problems.
Giving up alcohol or drinking less was difficult for the people who drank heavily. One woman was helped by an alcohol counsellor who advised her to keep a drinking diary detailing how much she drank, what she drank and in what circumstances. A couple of people said it took them years to build their lives slowly back up again as they were “so far gone”.
Using recreational drugs
We also spoke to some young people who had used recreational drugs. With the term ‘recreational drug use’ we refer here to the irregular use of illicit psychoactive drugs or the misuse of prescription medication. As recreational drug use is illegal all the clips below have been anonymised.
Most of the young people who had tried recreational drugs said they’d only tried or used them occasionally but a few people had used heavier drugs longer term. Young people said they’d been using recreational drugs because “everyone does it”, as a way of “experimenting”, because they thought it’s “cool” or because it was a part of club culture and their mates were using drugs at parties. A couple had also tried them abroad, in countries where some recreational drugs were legal.
 
A couple of people said they smoked weed (cannabis) because they felt it helped them to “chill out” and “calm down”. However, everyone we talked with who had used cannabis said it caused them paranoia, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and one woman said weed had caused her bad memory problems. Other effects of drug use included feeling “lethargic”, “constant tiredness” and “mental pain”. One woman said that stopping cannabis made her depression a lot worse.
A couple of people who’d used recreational drugs longer term said it had “messed” them up. One man said he’d quickly moved on to heavier and heavier drugs and it had been “easy to cross the line”. These people were also worried that drug use had caused or triggered the depression in the first instance. One man worried about the “long term damage” that ecstasy might have done to his brain, and in causing depression.
These people had made a conscious decision and been able to stop using recreational drugs. One man said the extreme depression and anxiety attacks caused by recreational drugs made him stop. For another, his girlfriend had given him an ultimatum to stop and offered support for him to do so. To those using drugs, or considering using them, he says:

“If you ever think of doing drugs don’t, like there’s the occasional fling in college if you do, but just imagine yourself as that 27-year-old-bloke in hospital handcuffed to the bed by the police, under constant watch because he’s violent, bleeding everywhere, and looking like he’s old enough to go to the post office and get his pension out when he’s only 27, and he could have had the whole world in front of him, but he chose to go to drugs. So that’s probably the worst put off you can possibly imagine.”

For helplines and other resources please see our ‘Resources’ section.

Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated December 2013.

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