The Link Between Teen Depression And Substance Use

Teenagers may try to “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol to mitigate uncomfortable mental health conditions like depression. Understanding how drugs and alcohol impact the brain can help parents understand the link between teen substance use and depression, which is typically characterized by long periods of low moods and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.

Substances like drugs and alcohol temporarily increase levels of dopamine in the brain, making teens want to continue using after initially trying them. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reinforcing pleasurable behaviors and inducing euphoria, is often linked to addiction. Some teens struggling with depression may seek out this dopamine surge to cope with their symptoms.

When the brain becomes accustomed to elevated dopamine levels, the pleasure derived from typical behaviors that naturally increase dopamine levels—such as exercising, laughing, or enjoying a good meal—can be diminished. This can eventually serve to reinforce certain symptoms of depression.

Understanding Teen Depression

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 20% of teens aged 12-17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2021, with females having a higher prevalence (29%) than their male counterparts (12%).

Multiple factors influence teen depression, including:

Hormonal Changes

Adolescence brings a wide range of new emotions due to the surge in hormonal activity at this time. Research indicates that hormones can play a role in the onset of mental health issues like depression.

Sleep Patterns

Sleep is a vital component of mental health. During adolescence, melatonin levels are higher at night and dip in the morning, which contributes to the fact that teens tend to stay up late and may have trouble getting out of bed early in the morning. A lack of quality sleep can contribute to difficulties regulating emotions and handling stressors, since they have often not yet developed appropriate coping mechanisms. This can be associated with the development of depression.

Social Influences

Social factors and stress also play a role in the development of teenage depression. During adolescence, there are heightened social pressures and a desire to be accepted by peers. While the brain stops growing in size by adolescence, certain areas of the brain continue to develop through early adulthood. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex continues to grow, which is the area of the brain responsible for judgment and decision-making. Teens may not be able to make the best judgements about who to hang out with, and may be unable to realize that friends who push them to drink or do drugs do not have their best interest in mind. This pressure from peers, if left untreated, can lead to mental distress and illness.


Technology can also be an influencing factor on teenage mental health. For example, phone and social media addictions have emerged among teens. Current research connects teenage social media and smartphone use to the development of depression, social isolation, and loneliness.

Featured Centers Offering Treatment for Teens

Signs Of Depression In Teens

Certain behavioral changes can indicate a teen is struggling with depression and a substance use disorder (SUD).

Signs of depression in teens may include:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or friends
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Decreased energy
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Difficulty performing daily activities
  • Extreme mood shifts
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Thoughts of suicide

While exhibiting these signs does not guarantee your teen is struggling with depression, it can signify a heightened risk. It’s important to sit down and talk with them and provide accessible and age-focused mental health resources.

Teen Depression And Addiction Statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, among adolescents ages 12-17:

  • More than 15% had a major depressive episode.
  • More than 36% had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • More than 4% had been diagnosed with a SUD.
  • Those with depression had the highest chance of having a co-occurring mental health disorder.

These statistics are stark reminders that the issue of teen depression and substance use is wide-ranging and can present in many ways.

Which Teens Are At Risk For Depression And Addiction?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a combination of neurobiological, emotional, and social factors may increase the likelihood of teenagers developing mental health issues. These simultaneous changes can contribute to the advent of certain types of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders during adolescence.

Other factors can influence addiction, particularly in teens, such as social and environmental influences. Some teens can see substance use as a way to connect with or be accepted by their peers. If substances are accessible in their environment, and their peers are using them, they may be at a higher risk.

Furthermore, adolescents who engage with substance-related content on social media are more likely to engage in risky behaviors themselves. This phase of life can be particularly vulnerable as it is a time when many teens begin to try on new identities and experiment with risk-taking behaviors, including substance use.

Genetic predispositions may also play a role in the development of both depression and addiction. However, studies show that while genetic factors do contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to addiction, genetic predisposition does not guarantee that someone will develop a SUD. It is simply one among many factors that play a role in this susceptibility.

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Treating Teen Depression And Addiction

Early intervention is essential in the treatment of teen depression and addiction, and it’s important to let your teen know they can come to you for help. While not formalized treatment methods, encouraging healthy coping skills like exercise, journaling, and eating healthy could be beneficial for your teen. Additionally, it can be helpful for adolescents to have someone they trust and can talk to outside of their family.

Established therapy techniques, like psychotherapy and counseling, can be helpful for many teens. Individual and group therapy can help teens recognize negative thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors and learn how to manage their emotions in healthier ways. There are also peer support groups for teens, which can help them realize they are not the only ones struggling with these issues. Social support systems can be integral in one’s treatment and recovery process.

Medication is also an option for depression and addiction in teens who are struggling, though it is considered most effective when used in conjunction with counseling or therapy.

Teen outpatient rehab programs can offer a personalized treatment plan using some or all of these methods. In more severe cases, teenage residential treatment programs across the country can help teens heal from depression and SUDs.

Help Is Available

If your teen is struggling with substance abuse or depression, seeking professional help is highly recommended.

Contact a treatment provider today to learn more about the admissions process, how to pay for treatment, and how to get help verifying your insurance coverage. Remember that the most important thing is to get your teen the treatment they need to start living a healthy, addiction-free future.