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UMass Medical School researcher finds self-awareness can divert depressed teens from drinking

Robert Wellman and colleagues examine relationship between youth depression and alcohol use

UMass Medical School Communications

December 09, 2019
Robert Wellman, PhD

A new study led by Robert Wellman, PhD, finds that if teenagers learn to recognize when they’re feeling down and how to manage those emotions, they ‘re less likely to self-medicate through alcohol. This addresses the question of which comes first: depression leading to drinking or drinking leading to depression.

“One of the challenges was to tease out the influence of ‘interindividual’ and ‘intraindividual’ factors affecting this relationship,” said Dr. Wellman, professor of population & quantitative health sciences in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine. “Interindividual factors are differences between people, such as their sex, age, genetic makeup and psychological characteristics, while intraindividual factors are fluctuations that occur within a person, such as sleepiness or level of energy at a particular time of day.”

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that adolescents increased their drinking in response to short-term elevations that exceeded their normal level of depressive symptoms, but they did not have more symptoms after short-term elevations in the frequency of their drinking.

The study team, including co-authors Jennifer O’Loughlin, PhD, professor of social and preventive medicine at the Université de Montréal School of Public Health; Michael Chaiton, PhD, associate professor of global public health education and training at the University of Toronto; and Matthis Morgenstern, PhD, head of research and prevention at the Institute for Therapy and Health Research in Kiel, Germany, looked at the timing of drinking and depressive symptoms. They used data from Dr. O’Loughlin’s nicotine dependence in teens study in which 1,293 Montreal high school students were interviewed 20 times at three-month intervals during grades 7 through 11.

“If we can teach adolescents to recognize and cope with these short-term fluctuations in negative emotions, we can possibly prevent escalations in drinking,” O’Loughlin said.

Many adolescents drink alcohol and it is common for them to experience symptoms of depression, such as feeling sad or losing interest in activities they previously found engaging. Teens who drink have more depressive symptoms than their peers who don’t drink, and teens who experience more depressive symptoms begin drinking earlier, and drink and become intoxicated more frequently than their peers with fewer symptoms. Moreover, drinking combined with depressive symptoms carries a greater risk of negative outcomes such as alcohol-use disorder, severe depression and suicide than does either drinking or depressive symptoms by themselves.

“Ours is the first study to demonstrate a relationship between depressive symptoms and drinking frequency after accounting for associations with the interindividual factors of sex, age, mother’s education, sensation-seeking and impulsivity,” said Wellman.

Wellman joined the UMMS Department of Family Medicine & Community Health in 2003 to study tobacco addiction. He continues to explore behaviors that pose and protect against health risks with his current focus on binge drinking and other addictive behaviors among adolescents and young adults.

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UMMS, Univ. of Montreal researchers link binge drinking to higher blood pressure